2011 in reading: revisitation
A look back at some of the reading we did at Open Letters in 2011
John Cotter, Executive Editor
Adam Golaski pulled the Penguin edition of Gulliver’s Travels out of the trunk of his car, along with a bottle of very good olive oil and a dusting of snow. It was just after Christmas and the book and the oil were gifts; the snow was garnish. He knew I’d barely skimmed the Travels. “You don’t have to read the whole book right now,” he said, “but read Book IV, the Houyhnhnms. I think his sense of cynicism is a lot like yours.” Eight months later, I’d just sat down a surprisingly unfunny George Saunders story in the New Yorker, and decided I felt like laughing. I cracked Gulliver’s Travels to Book IV and, after a page or two of getting myself acquainted, I felt a thrill. How is it possible this was so funny, so pointed and bitter and blasting? How had I gone so long without knowing?
We all have blind spots but I was ashamed of this one, although my heart set it right. I’m there all the time now with Gulliver, before the perfect equine race of reason, explaining our world and all its brainless bloodshed:
He asked me what were the usual Causes or Motives that made one Country go to War with another. I answered they were innumerable, but I should only mention a few of the chief. Sometimes the Ambition of Princes, who never think they have Land or People enough to govern: Sometimes the Corruption of Ministers, who engage their Master in a War in order to stifle or divert the Clamour of the Subjects against their Evil Administration. Difference in Opinions hath cost many Millions of Lives: For instance, whether Flesh be Bread, or Bread be Flesh; whether the Juice of a certain Berry be Blood or Wine; whether Whistling be a Vice or a Virtue; whether it be better to kiss a Post or throw it into the Fire; what is the best Color for a Coat, whether Black, White, or Red or Grey; and whether it should be long or short, narrow or wide, dirty or clean, with many more. Neither are any Wars so furious and bloody, or of so long Continuance, as those occasioned by Difference in Opinion, especially if it be in things indifferent.
Of course, it’s Swift’s description of the way his own tribe of Yahoos treat the noble Houyhnhnms in their care that occasions his coerced departure. The horses of instruction will sterilize their own beasts of toil and Gulliver must either stay for the snip or sally forth. Home, broken, Gulliver consoles himself with his own unbroken horses, spending long hours in the stable in conversation. Only there is he less than alone.
From John Berger’s About Looking:
With their parallel lives, animals offer man a companionship which is different from any offered by human exchange. Different because it is a companionship offered to the loneliness of man as a species.
So writes the critic in another of the reading revelations I found this year, “Why Look at Animals” from his collection of late-70s pieces, About Looking. Warm and wise, heart pinned to the flesh beneath his sleeve, Berger writes alarmingly well about art but also about business suits (which ridicule the strong physique of the working man as they flatter the soft flesh of the capitalist), the reverse-mirror works and equal worth of Walt Disney and painter Francis Bacon, and the meaning of photography. I started reading “Uses of Photography” standing up in Boston’s Raven Books just a block from the international school where I taught last spring, and by the time my break was over I’d bought On Looking and run off twenty photocopies of “Why look at Animals?” for my class.
Photographs, for Berger, are just another implement by which the ruling class turns everything into spectacle, although that’s not the whole of it. There’s an eschatology to photos too:
Memory implies a certain act of redemption. What is remembered has been saved from nothingness. What is forgotten has been abandoned.
This is exactly the struggle that faces another exemplary critic, Daniel Mendelsohn, in his 2006 bestseller The Lost: A Search for Six of the Six Million.
I’d been consulting on a Holocaust memoir this spring and felt underqualified, as I’d never read one before. Outdoors at the legendary Brattle dollar tables, Rohan Maitzen suggested The Lost, calling it the best book she’d read the year before.
I’ll say something about it for those of you who haven’t read it, but who should. Now middle-aged, Daniel Mendelsohn grew up surrounded by threads of a story he couldn’t re-weave. All of us do, of course, but this story was unusually dark: his uncle, aunt, and cousins disappeared in the early days of the Holocaust, but he didn’t know when or how (or even what all of their names were, or their ages when they died). He heard fragments of stories, but he had no way of knowing if they were true.
And so he travels to the now-Ukrainian town of Bolechow and to Copenhagen, Sydney, Tel Aviv. He sets forth and regroups, travels far and broods. In the course of his four-year search and the composition of his book, he consciously manages to recreate what he loves about old Jewish storytelling – the doubling back, matryoshka digressions, multistories. We learn about far more than six people – we learn about a lost world.
What impressed me was how like our own were the days before hell. Mendelsohn’s cousins Lorka and Frydka went to movies, gossiped, worried, goofed around with boys, and, eventually, froze in terror. Again and again on his journeys, Mendelsohn is struck by how present the past is in the people he talks to (the girl’s old boyfriends, rivals, even their indirect executioners).
To tell a story, he concludes, you need to get very close to what happened, then get very far away in order to make sense of it. This coming near and pulling away lends a compelling rhythm to his storytelling and his travels in time.
Four hundred years in the past, Matsu Bashō felt the same charge of history intruding into the present during his journey along The Narrow Road to the Interior.
Bashō’s Narrow Road is exactly the kind of book that returns a reader’s effort. The read was its own journey, as all worthwhile reads are, and I know something now about Renga, Tokugawa Japan, and the geography of those islands. It’s a book to take in slowly and one that rewards what you bring into it. I picked it up because I’d promised to teach it, and this won’t be the last time.
Old Bashō, just home to his cottage by the banana tree after several arduous trips around Japan (on foot, pre-GPS) decides to undertake another journey, this time northward, into the back country. There he takes in what’s around him, sees and feels it, and uses his affinity for haiku and renga for a bewildering variety of purposes: thanking strangers, commemorating monuments, passing drunken evenings with friends, resolving his own restless thoughts, marking goodbyes.
At last he finds Oku-n-hosomichi, the narrow road, famous for a thousand reasons and hard to reach. Standing before an old stone signpost that’s nearly worn illegible and lost in moss, he voices a brilliant and heartbreaking knowledge of what time is:
Most places mentioned in old poetry can never be exactly located. Mountains crumble through time, landslides change the river’s course, floods wash out roads, hardly anything remains where it was for long. Thus faced with this monument of nearly a thousand years, I felt such a powerful link with the past, so connected at the heart with men of old, I forgot the aches and pains of the journey, and, in gratitude for such a traveler’s blessing, wept for joy.
Steve Donoghue, Managing Editor and host of Stevereads
In 2011 as in all previous years stretching back to the days of Gutenberg, I was deluged in new books. By some estimates, 200,000 new titles were printed just in the United States in that one year alone, and there were weeks where it seemed like one representative copy of each of them was finding its way to my mailbox. A professional editor and reviewer can commence feeling overwhelmed, and even if that reaction can be forestalled (by reading all the time, everywhere, and never stopping, ever, even during meals and, um, other intimate activities), it casts a pall of guilt over the act of re-reading. How can such an indulgence possibly be countenanced, in the face of twenty or thirty new books arriving every week?
Fortunately, there’s a kind of solution: classics are being re-issued with encouraging frequency. They come out in all their brash inventiveness, sporting new cover designs, new introductions, new notes, new illustrations, new translations – and although the re-reader deep inside might be concentrating on the ‘classics’ part, the editor and reviewer can latch onto that ‘new’ part and indulge, indulge, indulge.
Four such indulgences stand out for me from my reading in 2011.
Persuasion: An Annotated Edition (Harvard University Press) – Like any civilized person, I re-read the novels of Jane Austen on a very nearly annual basis, and by sheer coincidence, 2011 was time for me to return to Kellynch Hall, the financially embarrassed Elliot family, and their shiningly wonderful daughter Anne, whose love for the dashing Captain Wentworth, long frustrated and seemingly now impossible, rekindles against all odds. And what better way to revisit the world of Jane Austen’s last completed novel (published posthumously in 1818) than through one of the magnificent annotated editions produced regularly by Harvard University Press? Well, perhaps there are better ways to enjoy the book than with some committee of docents droning over your shoulder, but even so – annotations can be fun, and these Harvard editions are setting the standard for a new century of carefully supporting intelligent readers.
A Dissertation Upon A Roast Pig (and other essays) (Penguin) – It’s a sentiment fewer and fewer readers today know enough to share, but still: any opportunity to rejoin the sublime, the imbecilic, the wonderful Charles Lamb in the stream-like outpouring of his opinions is an opportunity to be grasped with both hands. Lamb was once an arbiter of all conversation in literate adult society, and his pieces – on a variety of subjects only he would have found normal – are every bit as captivating as they were two centuries ago. Bless Penguin for continuing to produce volumes like this without any indication whatsoever that even one copy will be bought and read by the general public. This particular volume is a lovely production, just the thing to tell new readers – or remind old ones – that our discourse is always more lively and more sane when Lamb is involved.
Moby-Dick in Pictures (Tin House) – Melville’s great fish story of 1851 has been reprinted innumerable times, in editions ranging from the simple to the grandiose, and this new version from Tin House immediately jumps to the front ranks of the most remarkable. Matt Kish gives us a Moby-Dick with one illustration for every page – over 550 in all, done in a bewildering array of styles and moods. The sheer visual profusion at first struck me as confused and contradictory even as I delighted in viewing them while I was merrily re-reading … until I was reminded by Melville that the book itself is confused and even contradictory – gloriously so. With its high-quality paper and unique oblong shape, this is a Moby-Dick suddenly capable of taking us to new soundings in even the most familiar hunting-grounds.
The Iliad of Homer (University of Chicago) – Both Oxford University Press and the Free Press published new translations of Homer’s towering epic in 2011, immediately creating new and perhaps controversial idioms – and leading every book reviewer in Christendom to pull down all their 20th century translations for the purpose of making invidious comparisons. And surely one of the gold standards of those translations was the one done by Richmond Lattimore in 1951, re-issued in a brightly-colored paperback in 2011 and introducing a whole new generation of readers to Lattimore’s liturgically precise line-renditions of Homer’s Greek. Re-reading the Lattimore so fresh from two new translations that speak to a new audience brought an entire generation of translational development into focus – for in breaking the ground for the modern era of ‘event’ translations, Lattimore gave the impetus to the more artistic renditions that followed.
There were many other such re-issued classics in 2011 – from the extremely innovative (a graphic novel of The Canterbury Tales in which Chaucer’s pilgrims ride mopeds) to the more mundane (the steady parade of Bantam and Signet classics produced principally for school children) – but these four stood out for me not only for their own literary worth but also because they helped a great deal with guilt-relief.
My top pick for 2011 functioned, oddly, as a kind of appendix to a much larger work. Just as I was getting to the end of James McPherson’s excellent single-volume history of the Civil War, Battle Cry of Freedom, I thought I’d take a look at what else Mr. McPherson had penned. Perusing the “M”s in the Civil War section of a local bookshop, I noticed McPherson ’s name prominently emblazoned on the cover of the New York Review of Books’ new reissue of Margaret Leech’s Reveille in Washington: 1860-1865. His introduction to this 1942 Pulitzer-winning analysis of Washington, DC during the Civil War sold me on the book, and I hoped it would enrich the experience of living in my adoptive hometown.
It appears I may have been uniquely alone in not having heard of Reveille in Washington before, despite its being out of print until recently; it is widely regarded as a highly engaging and entertaining masterpiece. Like Battle Cry of Freedom, the book covers the entire Civil War, but it is wholly focused on the experience of the war from the vantage point of Washington itself. Prior to the war, Washington was derided as “a city of magnificent distances,” a foul-smelling bottomland pocketed with a few pretentious architectural aspirations of grandeur. Being the administrative seat of the Union war effort, and the jumping-off point for a significant portion of the army’s training and operations, was instrumental in transforming the sleepy backwater into a legitimate national capital. Leech’s Reveille in Washington covers that transformation in vibrant detail.
Leech sources much of her book from local newspapers, giving her both some authority about what information was available to the general public, as well as a wealth of anecdotes about children misplaced during parades, the heroic acts of firefighters, and who was wearing what at important balls and social events. Although Leech generally writes from the traditional perspective of an omniscient historian, she often assumes enough basic knowledge of the Civil War to put the reader in the position of the imperfectly informed City of Washington. Information trickling into Washington was rather sketchy; citizens were reliant on War Department reports, war correspondents’ telegrams, or the more immediately visceral evidence of thousands of Union wounded staggering back from Bull Run or being carried off Navy steamships. Leech similarly keeps the reader in the dark about what exactly was happening in the field:
When the news first came up from Virginia that the Army of the Potomac had crossed the Rapidan, the country was in a torment of suspense. Its state of mind was like that of a man pacing the floor in a hospital where an emergency operation is being performed by a skillful surgeon. Blood and danger were implicit in the program indispensible to recovery. … It took without faltering the tidings of the grapple in the tangled Wilderness.
The next day, Sunday, brought further word of terrific fighting. The story was inconclusive. There was as yet no official report. But it was known that the quartermaster of the Army of the Potomac had telegraphed for forage; and a city, grown wise in the ways of war, realized that this imported an advance.
Five days later, the city receives its first taste of resolve in a Union general when Grant telegrams that, “I propose to fight it out on this line if it takes all summer,” prompting President Lincoln to read the telegram to “deliriously joyful” crowds gathered outside the White House. Leech leaves off all discussion of what exactly was happening in the Wilderness, with one exception: “Only one thing was misunderstood by the people. Lee was fighting prudently, protecting his army behind breastworks. Grant was throwing his troops against them with great slaughter.”
Unlike the brilliantly completist Battle Cry of Freedom, which marries political context with battle maps and detailed accounts of minor commanders’ movements, Leech’s Washington-centric account of the Civil War is brilliant because of its limited perspective. But I would recommend having some grounding in what happened during the Civil War outside of the Federal City before reading this masterly appendix.
A few years ago, I read Never Let Me Go, my first Kazuo Ishiguro, and it blew me away. It had been years since I tore through a novel because I just had to know what happened. He struck me as the rare novelist who can build a plot-driven book out of beautiful sentences. I was eager to read more, but the next one I tackled, When We Were Orphans, was much slower and languished, bookmark a third of the way in, on the coffee table for months. I was reluctant to try his most well-known book, The Remains of the Day, since I had already seen the movie.
Earlier this year, I finally noticed a slim, black paperback copy of A Pale View of Hills on our bookshelf – it must have been either hiding in the shadows or misalphabetized when I first fell for the author – and started reading. I quickly found it as enveloping as Never Let Me Go. Ishiguro is a master of pacing and the unreliable narrator, and his first novel, though not flawless, is a beautiful example of his abilities, set in post-war Japan and told in his trademark exacting, spare prose. The story – an aging Japanese woman, now living in England and mourning her eldest daughter’s suicide, remembers an odd friendship she formed during her first pregnancy – is ominous, then frightening, and finally shocking. It’s also maddeningly ambiguous. In contrast to the big reveal endings of the movies (The Usual Suspects, Fight Club), A Pale View of Hills will leave you wondering for months what “really” happened, which is of course unresolvable.
Ishiguro’s goal was to tell a story through memory, and memory is fallible, manipulable. I defy you not to finish this book in less than three days. (I cannot say the same for The Unconsoled, a maddening but nonetheless fascinating book that feels like a long bad dream.)
Like A Pale View of Hills, We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver (which came to me via the recommendation of Steve the Reader himself) is a book that maintains a teetering ambiguity to the end. Are there born killers? Are bad children the product of bad parenting, or are some children inherently difficult, even evil? When the book begins, we already know that Eva’s son has been convicted for murdering multiple classmates in a Columbine-style massacre. The story unfolds through letters to her estranged ex-husband, slowly reconstructing their story, from their decision to have a child – a decision they both questioned, and Eva later regretted – to that fateful Thursday that destroyed many lives. This structure shouldn’t work, but it does – with every chapter, the tension builds and there are new surprises. Some readers will find it impossible to sympathize with Eva – or Kevin, for that matter – but only, I think, if they abandon the book before the stunning and tragic conclusion.
I guess you could call this my page-turner year, because along with the two above, I read a few other books that had me racing to the last page – among them True Things About Me by Deborah Kay Davies, which I read cover to cover on a three-hour flight. The narrator of this novel is a classic “unlikeable character”—passive, bitchy, self-involved, and self-destructive. In the first chapter, she meets an attractive stranger on the job and proceeds to screw him in a parking garage. The rest of the book is the story of her downfall – she loses her job, savings, health, and everyone decent in her life in pursuit of this abusive asshole, as powerless to stop it as you, the reader. As torturous as it is, True Things About Me is also crisply observant and frequently hilarious, and will ring true with anyone who’s ever wondered, “Why am I doing this?”
In 2010, my hands-down favorite reads were Howards End by E.M Forster and A High Wind in Jamaica by Richard Hughes. This year, I only managed to cross one classic off my list: The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers. I started this book about a month before moving 2,000 miles across the country, and what with the packing and unpacking and everything in between, I might not have finished it, were it not for Mick, surely one of the best young female characters in all of American literature. This novel starts off feeling like linked stories, until you realize the chapters are cycling through a handful of major characters, all misfits in a small Southern town. Each has an interesting story, but I fell completely for Mick, a fierce, protective tomboy with a secret passion for music. Struggling against hate and poverty, she eventually succumbs, unwillingly and almost unknowingly, to the banal horror of an ordinary life. The fifth chapter in Part 2, in which Mick’s little brother runs away, is twenty pages of utter perfection, a self-contained wonder I’ll keep coming back to.
“He who saw the Deep, the country’s foundation” is Gilgamesh. The Deep is his ultimate wisdom but also the future people he needed to remember him; for us, the Deep is the past from which The Epic of Gilgamesh comes. Andrew George’s verse translation is from the Akkadian and Sumerian tablets (as opposed to a rendering from an English decipherment of the tablets) and is the finest Gilgamesh I’ve read. So much here is odd, lost in the translation from ancient to now, but in that loss lies beauty and often, a description that may at first read oddly turns out to be only so perfectly apt it’s striking. The following begins Gilgamesh’s long and funny reply to the horny goddess Ishtar’s marriage proposal:
[Who is there] would take you in marriage?
[You a frost that congeals no] ice,
a louvre-door [that] stays [not] breeze nor draught,
a palace that massacres… warriors…
The Penguin Classics paperback edition is a useful pleasure, with renderings and photos of the cuneiform tablets, line drawings of gods, monsters, and men from tablets, cylinder seals, and bronze work, maps, appendices, and a fine introduction.
Here are the last lines that tell of Prium’s death in The Aeneid, as translated by Robert Fitzgerald:
That was the end
Of Prium’s age, the doom that took him off,
With Troy in flames before his eyes, his towers
Headlong fallen—he that in other days
Had ruled in pride so many lands and people’s,
The power of Asia.
On the distant shore
The vast trunk headless lies without a name.
Fitzgerald had Shelley in mind when he rendered the Latin so, anyway it puts me in mind of Shelley, and this year the line sent me to Guy Devenport’s short essay “Ozymandias” (included in The Geography of the Imagination—thanks, Mr. Cotter). It’s a scene that illustrates two kinds of poets, one who labors with merely fine results, and the other (Shelley) whose genius allows for the quick synthesis of idea and then effortless, inspired verse. God, how we wish to be the latter but are most likely the former.
Again to The Aeneid with Patric Dickinson’s essay “Vergil and The Aeneid”—an introduction to his translation (for the Mentor Classics paperback, 1961)—is a model for academics. His Roman history is tied naturally to Shakespeare, as Virgil is, and with similar grace he ties Virgil’s poetry to Milton, to Hardy, to Tennyson, to Wordsworth, to Eliot, and back to Shakespeare, generating, as he leads his thread, excitement for the works discussed. Dickinson knows literature, sure, but what is important is that he loves literature.
How could I read James Joyce’s Ulysses and not brag? It’s work to read it and I did the work. Of course, if that’s all it was, it would be a book only for masochists, and it is not. Joyce, by alternating between conventional and unconventional narrative, left me with a sense of the mind of Leopold Bloom—more so than just the plot of his day. That is realism. An attempt to describe all of a life, rather than merely show us what of the iceberg is visible above the water. Anyone who has gone for am omelet at a greasy spoon after an exhausting night of party going knows, for instance, how realistic is the phantasmagorical and gender-bending play set in a brothel followed by Deadalus and Bloom at the all-night cabman’s café.
The Making of Star Wars, by J.W. Rinzler, is a film’s history. That the film is Star Wars is not alone what makes this book of interest. A fan of the fantasy—of the world and characters introduced to us by Star Wars—may even find The Making of boring, because it isn’t only about the creative history of the film (the art, the story, the FX, and the acting); it’s also very detailed in regard to the film’s practical history.
Since reading it, I’ve wondered about its instructional value. Though a document of the making of an independent film, its production methods and materials are of its time. The Making of, perhaps inadvertently, is excellent at conveying the emotional history of Star Wars’ production—the strain of the determination to see an idea through.
Characteristically he concluded his letter with the haunting lines that must have nerved many a reluctant young soldier to brave the death from which body and spirit shrank so pitifully:
War knows no power. Safe shall be my going . . .
Safe though all safety’s lost; safe where men fall;
And, if these poor limbs die, safest of all.
“Rupert Brooke,” he added, “is great and his faith also great. If destiny is willing I will write later.”
Well, I thought, destiny was not willing, and I shall not see that graceful, generous handwriting on any envelope any more.
Testament of Youth is profound and memorable as a personal perspective on a critical historical moment. But it was Brittain herself I found most compelling, especially her determination to think through her own painful experience and to convert her emotional response into meaningful action.
After the war, Brittain was a passionate advocate for both feminism and pacificism, working as a journalist and speaker alongside her close friend Winifred Holtby, best known today for her last novel, South Riding (1936). The story of the remarkably close and mutually sustaining relationship between Brittain and Holtby–cut short by Holtby’s early death–is told in Brittain’s Testament of Friendship (1940). Many of Brittain’s and Holtby’s articles were collected in an excellent 1985 Virago Press edition called Testament of a Generation; topics range from the woman’s movement (“I am constantly reprimanded for ‘flogging the dead horse of Feminism,’” Holtby observes; “I do not think the horse is dead”) to the rise of Nazism and the suppression of dissent in South Africa–all of which Holtby eloquently links to fundamental “failures of the imagination,” which are “among the most fruitful sources of injustice in the world”:
They are more common than deliberate sadism, more insidious than fear. Indeed, they breed fear. . . . The Jews to Nazi Germany, the Catholics to the Ku Klux Klan, Negroes to a southern states lynching party, women to eighteenth-century liberals – they are not human; they need not be accorded human privileges. The mind closes against any conception of their own point of view.
Both Brittain and Holtby worked against “failures of the imagination” through fiction as well as non-fiction. Brittain’s novels are largely unknown today, and after reading her first, The Dark Tide (1923), I have some idea why: in this work, which Brittain herself considered “a surprisingly melodramatic and immature production,” Brittain shows little talent for subordinating strongly felt ideas to the demands of story and character. And yet even in this strange, uneven book, Brittain’s ruthlessly confrontational intelligence is everywhere in evidence. The Dark Tide tells of the difficult friendship of two women, Daphne and Virginia, who are conspicuously similar to Brittain and Holtby. Intellectual and romantic competitors at Oxford, they end the novel allies after struggling through experiences that challenge their initial easy assumptions about the compatibility of independence and love, and about satisfying the claims of both public and private morality. The novel is particularly astute and sensitive in its portrayal of Daphne’s disintegrating marriage; here, as in her autobiography, Brittain emphasizes her conviction that marriage cannot be seen as the easy answer to woman’s destiny:
In spite of the feminine family tradition and the relentless social pressure which had placed an artificial emphasis on marriage for all women born, like myself, in the eighteen-nineties, I had always held and still believed it to be irrelevant to the main purpose of life. For a woman as for a man, marriage might enormously help or devastatingly hinder the growth of her power to contribute something impersonally valuable to the community in which she lived, but it was not that power, and could not be regarded as an end in itself.
In The Dark Tide, marriage is precisely a devastating hindrance, one against which we measure the value of Virginia’s support and friendship.
The more I learned about these dynamic women, living their lives to the full both personally and politically, the more I liked them and the more I wanted to know about them, to listen to them, to be part of their circle of people caring, thinking, and acting to defend their ideals. I’m looking forward to reading more of their work next year, including more of their fiction as well as Testament of Experience (1957), which follows Brittain through the upheavals of the 1930s and 1940s.
My most enjoyable read this year was Anthony Trollope’s 1875 novel The Way We Live Now. It describes – and satirizes – a shift in culture in late Victorian society, and despite being a hefty tome, The Way We Live Now is never anything but accessible from beginning to end. The story bustles to life in its panoramic scope, and I was absorbed immediately in how lifelike Trollope’s fictional world feels. Characters are given a rich amount of expression on the page through numerous sub-plots that throw light on the society around them. The way I think Trollope shines best is in his handling of a large cast of characters.
There are three main threads of Trollope’s tale, the chief of which concerns the appearance of Augustus Melmotte in London society. Melmotte is reputed to have an enormous fortune and great financial skill, but only as a swindler; his character is opportunistic and amoral, but with a veneer of grace. He rises exponentially in society and settles a large backup fortune on his only daughter, Marie, in hopes that she marries into high society. The Carbury family occupies another major plot line; the novel starts off with Lady Carbury, an aspiring (and scheming!) writer whose plan for literary success hinges on expedience and acclaim-mongering above all else. She wants more for her children. Her son, Felix Carbury, is an income-siphoning dandy who seeks to marry Marie Melmotte solely for the wealth she will provide. On the other hand, Hetta Carbury is being strategically urged by her mother to marry the squire Roger Carbury, despite her lack of romantic love for the man and her amorous disposition toward Paul Montague. Lady Carbury is also an opportunist, though guided by a rose-tinted morality rather than the greed that drives Melmotte. No two characters are unrelated in a complex series of interconnections fleshed out as the plot develops.
Always on the look-out for an engaging, masterful work to read, I couldn’t help but feel that I struck gold with The Way We Live Now. It keeps a consistent voice and flow throughout its hundreds of pages, and never bogged me down for an instant in stalled passages or tepid plot development, as has been my occasional experience with large novels. A tremendously tedious example of this was another long novel I read this year, Atlas Shrugged; the plot of that story crumbles disastrously under its own weight, and the characters serve more as mouthpieces for the author’s message than actual, you know, people. Take this passage from The Way We Live Now, for instance:
[Roger Carbury] could not say to himself that [Paul Montague] had not been treacherous to him, nor could he forgive the man’s supposed treason. But he did tell himself very plainly that in comparison with Hetta the man was nothing to him. It could hardly be worth his while to maintain a quarrel with the man if he were once able to assure Hetta that she, as the wife of another man, should still be dear to him as a friend might be dear. He was well aware that such assurance, such forgiveness, must contain very much. It it were to be so, Hetta’s child must take the name of Carbury and must be to him as his heir,– as near as possible to his own child. In her favour he must throw aside that law of primogeniture which to him was so sacred that he had been hitherto minded to make Sir Felix his heir in spite of the absolute unfitness of the wretched young man. All this must be changed, should he be able to persuade himself to give his consent to the marriage. In such case Carbury must be the home of the married couple, as far as he could induce them to make it so. There must be born the future infant to whose existence he was already looking forward with some idea that in hid old age he might there find comfort. In such case, though he should never again be able to love Paul Montague in his heart of hearts, he must live with him for her sake on affectionate terms. He must forgive Hetta altogether,– as though there had been no fault; and he must strive to forgive the man’s fault as best he might. Struggling as he was to be generous, passionately fond as he was of justice, yet he did not know how to be just himself. He could not see that he in truth had been to no extent ill-used…
Nevertheless, when he rose from the wall he had resolved that Hetta should be pardoned entirely, and that Paul Montague should be treated as though he were pardoned. As for himself,– the chances of the world had been unkind to him and he would submit to them!
This kind of personal expression could never be found in the pages of Atlas Shrugged, because it requires in the author a sort of empathy absent from Rand’s philosophy. The experience of that book was in most ways the direct inverse of reading The Way We Live Now. A slavish adherence to an ideology gets the message across but pales entirely in comparison to a full social palette; many ideologies are present in The Way We Live Now, but to serve as backdrop and coloring for the human relations we see in all their intricacies, which makes for a more rich, nuanced read. Every reader, I think, has had the experience of digging into a large novel with at least a half-expectation that it could turn grueling. What if the writing is too soft, too dense, just plain poor? What if the voice or voices are uninteresting? The supreme satisfaction that comes from an engaging read that pulls you along apace with it, is a return on the gamble. The Way We Live Now doesn’t disappoint!
Lisa Peet, host of Like Fire
Out of everything I read in 2011, from the earnestly allegorical to the coolly factual to the wackily enjoyable—and there were several in all those categories, plus a few more besides—two come to mind with almost identical warm thrills of book nostalgia. The question is, what’s so similar about them? Both Michael Crummey’s Galore and Patrick De Witt’s The Sisters Brothers are character-driven and quirky, although quirky’s never been much of a selling point for me. And they’re set in a rough-and-tumble kind of frontier past, offering views of 19th-century North America from the north and the west, Newfoundland and San Francisco, respectively. Otherwise, though, they’re very different stories.
Galore is a multigenerational saga featuring the Sellerses and the Devines, two families warring, falling in love, and eyeing each other with mutual suspicion in the little fishing village of Paradise Deep. There are elements both gritty and mythic, with clashes between Catholics and Protestants, labor and management, witches and moneylenders. Not to mention a mute albino who is found, at the book’s beginning, in the belly of a whale. So yes, there is a degree of magic realism, but if that’s not a deal-breaker you’re also in for some deeply memorable characters, wonderful writing, and the satisfying sense of having been haunted.
The Sisters Brothers, on the other hand, is all close narrative breathing down your shirtfront. It’s the tale of Eli Sisters and his brother Charlie, a couple of mismatched guns for hire on the road to San Francisco, where they’ve been contracted to kill a man with the charming name of Hermann Kermit Warm. Eli does the telling, in an unforgettable voice that echoes the stilted formality of True Grit—did no one in the Wild West understand how to use contractions?—with the alienation of a pistol-toting Holden Caulfield. While I’m not big on audiobooks, The Sisters Brothers and Eli’s understated tough-guy poetics would lend themselves perfectly to the format—his descriptions of their misadventures and the strange, sad characters they meet along the way make you want to drop everything and listen.
And this, I decided, is why these two novels—aside from being a couple of my favorite reads this year in their own right—live together in my mind. Both are stories told in the way of the seasoned raconteur; Crummey’s swoops up and out like a seabird, showing us what a hundred years of superstition and unrequited love can do to a town, while De Witt’s leans in close by the campfire, most likely with whiskey breath, with talk of mayhem and men’s odysseys. Both books pick you up and drop you someplace you feel you might know, but it turns out you don’t—which is half the fun. And both answer the reader’s request to tell me a story, and do a hell of a fine job in the process.
It’s a hard sell, pushing literary criticism as pleasure reading. The difficulty is that reading anything, especially novels or poetry, has become increasingly categorized in the public imagination as a somewhat rarefied leisure pursuit, like playing golf. Reading criticism, then, can come to seem like an elaboration for those few with a real mania for the pastime, like hiring a pro to analyze your swing.
But the truth is that good collections of criticism can be engaging and satisfying like no other kind of book. The essays within them are short enough to be consumed in one sitting. The writing tends to be straightforward and on-the-surface. The purposes of the pieces are to charm, to teach, and also to provoke—and therefore give rise to arguments. Few forms of writing address the reader so directly as criticism, and it has always seemed to me a shame that book clubs confine themselves to fiction, when criticism is written in the full expectation of discussion and debate (however much the critics themselves may snuffle at having their judgments challenged).
One of the best collections I read this year, and surely a book designed to spur debate, is a book of essays by Dwight MacDonald called Masscult and Midcult (New York Review Books), of which the highlight is the title piece written in 1960. This is a marvelously ambitious and delightfully waspish root-and-branch demolition of virtually every form of postwar American art and entertainment—it’s snobbery in its most down-to-earth and conversable style. MacDonald’s first target, Masscult, is box office and bestseller fare, commercialized “parodies of High Culture … fabricated by technicians hired by businessmen.” This is art-like simulacra that has been packaged and sold like cereal (Norman Rockwell, Cecil B. DeMille, Erle Stanley Gardner, and Life Magazine all come in for thrashings).
Even more insidious, however, is the “middlebrow compromise” Midcult, which Macdonald identifies as the forms of art and intellectualism that have been diluted and sweetened to appeal to the suburbs:
Midcult is the Book-of-the-Month Club, which since 1926 has been supplying its members with reading matter of which the best that can be said is that it could be worse, i.e., they get John Hersey instead of Gene Stratton Porter. Midcult is the transition from Rodgers and Hart to Rodgers and Hammerstein, from the gay tough lyrics of Pal Joey, a spontaneous expression of a real place called Broadway, to the folk-fakery of Oklahoma! and the orotund sentimentalities of South Pacific.
Middle-class taste has very few skeptics these days, at least none as eloquent and prosecutorial as MacDonald (he was a sometime Communist, but at heart was simply a contrarian). Reading this book rocks you on your heels and demands that you fight back in defense of your own notions of art and expression.
The Good of the Novel, a new anthology of essays from Continuum Press about some of the most esteemed works of fiction from the past twenty years, is a different sort of collection, one intended as an aid rather than a goad. The editors Liam McIlvanney and Ray Ryan set out with the twin goals of celebrating “evaluative literary criticism, notably in the form of the long review-essay” (a cherished form here at Open Letters) and establishing some common ground for the innumerable novels that pour forth from publishing houses every year.
On the first count they are wonderfully successful. The essays included here, from James Wood, Tessa Hadley, and Frances Wilson among many others, are models of beguiling, contemplative, and beautiful writing. Each one is a brief, restorative sauna of fine prose. Of Martin Amis, Jason Cowley writes, “Many of [his] best non-fiction pieces are enriched by love—the love he feels for his father and siblings and children and for the writers and books that mean most to him. There is no love in his fiction, certainly for or between characters. There is only love of style, something that precedes and is anterior to the fiction.” This is at the start of Mary Hawthorne’s exquisite look at the (countless) novels of Anita Brookner:
Every year or so, since 1981, when Brookner published her first novel, the autobiographical A Start in Life, at the age of fifty-three, like Sisyphus, her soulmate, she has shouldered one stone after another to the top of the hill and watched it descend again, as shortly she begins contemplating her next battle against inexorable fate—which is to say, the cruel indifference of the gods toward the dutiful, the good, and the well-behaved
It must be said that the editors’ hope of finding connected themes in these essays has largely gone unfulfilled—the essayists they commissioned are not very interested in grand syntheses, and instead dwell on different and specific elements of their given novels. But this too is immensely interesting—a thrillingly diverse and dynamic galaxy of fiction emerges from this collection, elucidated by some of the best critics writing today.
A year is a long time in reading, and in teaching reading. Having just finished reading Genesis with my students—“Were they really, like actually nine hundred years old?”—I am less certain about what a year is and how long it lasts than usual. While the winter holidays and the year-end lists are often a time for hefty blockbusters, I’m not feeling the urge to lug 1Q84 on the subway just yet. Instead, I’ve been enjoying a few one-sitting treats.
I’ve lived in New York for eight years and fantasized about it for longer than that, so I’ve no idea how it’s taken me so long to get to E.B. White’s brief and perfect 1949 essay Here is New York. Although it was written in the summertime and the un-air-conditioned heat hangs heavy, it seems to fit with this colder, sparklier season, when so many people come to New York looking for a fantasy version of the city. White’s New York is a constantly changing and an insanely overcrowded arena that’s always one hearty shove away from violent breakdown, but which nevertheless just works, and seduces without seeming to make any effort—just like the book. It’s impossible to quote from. Pick up a copy of the neat little hardcover from The Little Bookroom, find a quiet diner booth, and enjoy. I also re-read Dos Passos’ Manhattan Transfer this summer; a book that’s fallen somewhat out of critical favor, and which doesn’t necessarily add up to much more than the sum of its parts, but some of its parts are quite dazzling, and it’s well worth going back to, especially if you’ve been watching Ken Burns’s Prohibition and Boardwalk Empire and want to keep imaginatively partying like it’s 1925.
My year in reading is always likely to feature some of the war in which John Dos Passos drove ambulances on the Western Front. This year I’ve gone back a couple of times to Rebecca West’s Return of the Soldier, from 1918—a lurid, lyrical little story about a wealthy English landowner who gets too close to a shell-blast in the trenches and is shipped back to his glamorous country house having lost fifteen years of his memory. He doesn’t recognize his cover-girl wife and thinks he’s still in love with a local girl who’s now a dowdy and downtrodden housewife; the story is narrated by his cousin, who is in turn, in love with him. It’s ninety pages long, but it packs a whole heap of Freudian conflict into them, from the repressed desire of the narrator to the ghostly presence of not one but two dead baby boys (West wrote the novel when she was sequestered looking after her own illegitimate son by H.G. Wells.) Jane Marcus’s collection of West’s funny, spirited early feminist and socialist journalism, The Young Rebecca, is also a treat.
Two more WWI recommendations: Edith Wharton’s war journalism for Scribners, later collected as Fighting France, is available under that title in a new edition from the wonderful Hesperus Press, with a foreword by Colm Tóibín. Wharton captures the incongruity of war, its suddenness and its inconvenience that are far more strongly felt at first than any real danger—partly because her own presence on the front line is itself so incongruous. She bustles her way right up to the ‘spectacle’ of war: when a local woman tells Wharton’s party that a shell has fallen nearby, and that the fighting is visible from a nearby garden, the middle-aged novelist exclaims immediately, “It did not take us long to reach that garden!”
The cannons were booming without a pause, and seemingly so near that it was bewildering to look out across empty fields at a hillside that seemed like any other. But luckily somebody had a field-glass, and with its help a little corner of the battle of Vauquois was suddenly brought close to us—the rush of French infantry up the slopes, the feathery drift of French gun-smoke lower down, and, high up, on the wooded crest along the sky, the red lightning and white puffs of the German artillery. Rap, rap, rap, went the answering guns, and the troops swept up and disappeared into the fire-tongued wood; and we stood there dumbfounded at the accident of having stumbled on this visible episode of the great subterranean struggle.
A beautiful piece of writing about the aftermath and memory of the war, Geoff Dyer’s The Missing of the Somme, published in the UK in 1994, came out this year in the US for the first time from Vintage. Dyer’s elliptical, autobiographical style suits his subject surprisingly well, and can be credited with opening the war up to more iconoclastic and inventive historical approaches, that take seriously the impact of massive loss and mass memorialization on the surviving populations.
And on a totally different, more festive note, Plato’s Symposium is great to read the day after a particularly good party. It’s about the meaning of love, by which we really mean the meaning of idealism, virtue, and the good life, as hashed out by a bunch of hungover Athenians—come for the philosophy, stay for the ne’er-do-well aristocrat Alcibiades’ story of his failed attempts to seduce Socrates. Or the other way around. (In Woodruff and Nehamas’s translation, his opening line is: “Good evening gentlemen. I’m plastered.”) Looking forward, I’m going to keep going with reflections on drinking together, eating together, and what it means to do both, with the help of Adam Gopnik’s new essay collection The Table Comes First:
We shouldn’t intellectualize food, because that makes it too remote from our sensory pleasures; but we ought to talk as intelligently as we can about it, because otherwise it makes our sensory pleasures too remote from our minds. The knowledge that our senses are part of our intelligence is what makes us human. We alone know our fun. The sweetness in our morning coffee is at once a feeling, an idea, and a memory. Eating is an intelligent act, or it’s merely an animal one. And what makes it intelligent is the company of other mouths and minds. All animals eat. An animal that eats and thinks must think big about what it is eating not to be taken for an animal.
Happy holidays, and happy eating!
Most of the books I review each year are about politics and current events. It is, unfortunately, a sorry genre plagued by hacks—congressmen, journalists, TV personalities. Politicians write books to serve an upcoming campaign or to justify what they’ve done in office. In either case, few have the ability to write or think past the cant they practice in public life. Most journalists and entertainers produce terribly overheated prose; if they’re not crippling sentences with florid drama, they’re murdering them with nautical metaphors and sports cliches. In other words, most of the books I read each year are very, very bad.
But there are always exceptions, and I read outside the field as much as I can. After all, these books of the moment are replaceable drafts of the history to be written later, and without history, there is no frame of reference for the present. I also read fiction and poetry, as every non-fiction writer should. I know too many political junkies and history enthusiasts who disdain the thought, but they have no idea what they’re missing. Historians look from the outside-in, after the fact, relying even in the best case on partial evidence and educated theory. The events they try to understand turn on the motivations of rulers and societies, but they don’t have the novelist’s freedom to explore people and personalities from the inside, or the poet’s ability to deal in pure sensation. The best books I read this year had something of this insight.
Peter Camenzind, now over a hundred years old, was Hermann Hesse’s first novel. The main character, forerunner of all Hesse’s wanderers, leaves his mountain village in Switzerland to seek his place in the world as a great poet. Instead he finds moderate success as a man of letters and a string of broken relationships. Rootless, he travels, living and drinking in excess, hoping for something to happen. It’s a young man’s novel. The later portions, though sometimes cleverly wrought, are clearly aspirational, and the ending, where the protagonist discovers pure love caring for an invalid, is too pat; there’s a didactic air the author can’t quite suppress. But Hesse’s surging, poetic style can be very beautiful, and he knows the writer’s life, such as that sinking moment when a novice first realizes how hard it is going to be:
I had already begun the destruction of my juvenilia—my scribbling had become suspicious to me—when I came upon a few volumes of Gottfried Keller’s works, which I immediately read two or three times in succession. Then I suddenly realized how far removed my stillborn pipe dreams were from real, genuine, austere art. I burned my poems and stories, and with some of the embarrassed feeling that accompanies a hangover, I looked soberly and sadly out at the world.
Adolphe, by Benjamin Constant, takes a dimmer view of love and life in general. It’s a spare novel, a hundred small pages dedicated entirely to the torrid feelings of the narrator. You’ll search in vain for a description of the weather or the facade of a building. This approach keeps the romantic vicissitudes from grating, and allows Constant to mirror the narrowness of obsessive love; when the narrator at last emerges from his frenzied but socially unacceptable affair, his lover dead, his prospects wasted, the world he turned his back on has passed him by. He dies obscurely in a cheap inn.
Aside from paucity of evidence, perhaps the most difficult challenge for a historian is reproducing the motivations novelists take for granted. But some live through the times they chronicle, and if their canvas is wide, they can capture the spirit (or pathos) of an age. Joachim Fest lived through Nazi Germany, and his Hitler, the first biography written in German, is still among the best forty years after its publication. It’s a difficult book to recommend in the normal way, because any worthy biography of the man must also be trying. So it is with this one. Fest’s prose is dense, analytical, but never donnish. Married to its subject, the result can be scary, like some wardroom nightmare. Hitler is a psychological profile of Germany and Europe as much as it is a biography of the dictator, and the patterns Fest teases out of those societies are quieting. Hitler gave expression in the most extreme fashion to Europe’s strongest crosscurrents – anti-Semitism, anti-communism, nationalism, the veneration of order and militarism, and the stifling anxiety begotten by the creative destruction of capitalism and modernity. Through violence and shifting rhetoric he appealed to one side and then the other, kept his enemies off balance, divided, and then jumped through the space between to seize land and power. Hitler understood that to succeed, a movement needed more than policies. As Fest puts it,
The success of Fascism in contrast to many of its rivals was in large part due to its perceiving the essence of the crisis, of which it was itself the symptom. All the other parties affirmed the process of industrialization and emancipation, whereas the Fascists, evidently sharing the universal anxiety, tried to deal with it by translating it into violent action and histrionics. They also managed to leaven boring, prosaic everyday life by romantic rituals: torchlight processions, standards, death’s heads, battle cries, shouts of Heil… They presented men with modern tasks disguised in the costumery of the past. They deprecated material concerns and treated “politics as an area of self-denial and sacrifice of the individual for an idea.” In taking this line they were addressing themselves to deeper needs than those who promised the masses higher wages.
Hitler’s “unshakable confidence, which often seemed sheer madness, was based on the conviction that he was the only real revolutionary, that he had broken free of the existing system by reinstating the rights of human instincts.” Thus fascism, “sprung from the anxieties of the age…was an elemental uprising in favor of authority, a revolt on behalf of order.” In retrospect, the rise of the Third Reich, so well explained by Fest, is history’s most tragic example of the hard truth that in times of adversity and change, populism is most likely to find itself a tool of reactionaries.