From the Archives: Our Year in Reading 2012
A look back at some of the reading we did at Open Letters in 2012
John Cotter, Executive Editor
The best book I read in 2012 was written in 1856, and my runner-up in 1939; both tell the story of the same woman: a lonesome provincial housewife named Emma Bovary. I knew her story but I had never spent so much time with her as I did this year, reading both the Lydia Davis and the Eleanor Marx translations (not back-to-back, but months apart) and then the beautiful NYRB reprint of Francis Steegmuller’s Flaubert and Madame Bovary: A Double Portrait.
If you believe the first role of literature is to point the way to a better life or at the least to inspire the kind of change that would make a new life possible, you may not take to Flaubert’s masterpiece. A friend whose opinions on literature I value as much as my own complained about the book that none of the characters seem to learn anything, or improve themselves. But of course they think they’re doing just that all along, just as we delude ourselves in waking life. Emma believes she’s improving herself vastly with her overheated affairs and the kind of spending habits that make Mary Todd Lincoln seem a pinchfist. But more than this, the cyclical frustrations and petty hypocrisies of yearning Emma, featherbrained Léon, and even the loathsome M. Lheureux are literally existential: this is exactly what life, in a post-romantic world, is most often like.
One of the pleasures of Steegmuller’s study is our discovery of how like Emma was her creator. Emma “finds in adultery all the commonplaces of marriage”; Gustave Flaubert dreamed of great romantic journeys, but when he finally pursued them, he pinned all the while for his comfortable study. Both Emma and Flaubert yearn as romantics for one thing and yearn as bourgeois for the same—we see how often equivalent desire is evoked by both philosophies (one must transport oneself to other realms; this requires new clothes) and the passions of the romantic are satisfied via material ends; even Emma’s brief devotion to religion is sanctified not by solitude and prayer but by new books and frivolity. What alternative does Flaubert offer us to this sordid hypocrisy? The peasant? The peasant is ignorant, sentimental, and exploited by religion. Can we find salvation in God? See above. There is no escape: the tree of knowledge makes us sick, but without it, we are not really human. (“To be stupid and selfish and to have good health are the three requirements for happiness,” Steegmuller quotes Flaubert, “though if stupidity is lacking, the other two are useless”).
Flaubert is credited as the inventor of both realism (pace Balzac) and free indirect discourse (though graduate students in creative writing, should they happen upon the book, will wear their red pencils to the nubs fixing how often that close third switches characters in a single chapter, or page). But the glory of Madame Bovary is how many styles simultaneously rule its pages: it is satire, romance, gritty naturalism, pure fantasy, and cold social critique. We hate Emma because we see our own foolishness in her own and we root for her because we are foolish still; like Léon, we fall for her on the flimsiest of pretexts. She is us, c’est moi.
Steve Donoghue, Managing Editor and Host of stevereads
Notable Historical Fiction
I read some first-rate historical fiction in 2012, a year in which historical fiction seemed to dominate all non-porn sub-genres. Not only did Hilary Mantel win a back-to-back Booker Prize for her second Tudor-era novel Bring Up the Bodies, but several of the biggest-name novelists working today – Mark Helprin, Ken Follett, Colm Toibin, Dennis Lehane, etc. – turned to historical fiction as well. Lesser-known authors proved scarcely less talented at bringing the past to life (or moving the present into the past, whichever approach they desired). Looking back, a few stand out:
Dido’s Sister by Galbraith Crump – Virgil’s signature scenario from the Aeneid – the fate-thwarted love affair of Aeneas and Queen Dido – is here relegated to second billing so that Crump, a classicist and a damn fine storyteller, can concentrate on Dido’s sister Anna and her romance with one of Achates, one of Aeneas’ men. Crump decided to self-publish his fiction debut – readers shouldn’t miss it.
The “Raven” series by Giles Kristian – Blood Eye, Sons of Thunder, and Odin’s Wolves – Kristian’s irresistible action-adventure series set in the ninth century Viking Age centers on a small group of hardy heroes – one in particular, Raven, a sort of Viking-by-adoption who, in our author’s skillful handling, becomes one of the most memorable sword-and-shield heroes since You-Know-Who the Barbarian.
The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller – As with Dido’s Sister, so too here: Miller re-imagines an ancient epic – in this case, obviously, Homer’s Iliad – along modern-sensibility lines, bringing something of the ethos (and everything of the narrative style that isn’t nailed to the carpet) of Mary Renault to the story of the love between Homer’s headstrong hero and his best friend and fellow warrior Patroclus. The result is often arrestingly beautiful – also like Crump’s book, this is an amazing debut.
Jack 1939 by Francine Mathews – By rights the premise here – a very young and dashing Jack Kennedy recruited by President Franklin Roosevelt to act as a spy in pre-war Europe – should only work as high parody, but Mathew makes the masterful decision to play everything straight, and the result is not only fairly fast-paced and gripping but also, unexpectedly, heartwarmingly personal. The future president, his vivacious sister, even his conniving father … all are fleshed out into real, believable characters by the end of Mathew’s extremely confident story.
A Parliament of Spies by Cassandra Clark – This is the fourth installment in Clark’s ongoing murder mystery series stars Abbess Hildegard of Meaux, a wealthy but unassuming sleuth whose nobility and acumen cause even King Richard II to count himself among her admirers. This latest adventure finds Hildegard in London learning everything she can about Richard’s enemies in his latest Parliament – but Clark is ingenious in twisting her plots, and as a result our poor heroine has to deal with spies, counter-spies, assassins, would-be assassins, and one very inconvenient spouse before all is resolved. Readers can jump into this series at any point – and they’ll be happy they did.
Justin Hickey, Editor
I’ve been reading natural history books for about ten years now. By default, most of them are also conservation books. They have to be, because a writer can discuss animals, plants and the environment for only so long without mentioning humanity, the race that can imbalance just about anything- even, hopefully to nobody’s surprise, the realm of sharks.
Demon Fish, by Washington Post environmental reporter Juliet Eilperin, delves into the murk (both literal and cultural) where the misunderstood creatures rove. She introduces us to the Papa New Guinea “shark callers” who, despite a modern allegiance to Christianity, continue to harvest and worship the cartilaginous super-hunter in traditional ways; they fish using chanting, coconut shell instruments and snares (with dwindling success, thanks to Global Warming). She also examines the somewhat-scientific accounts of sharks from the medieval world, here relating a chunk from the 1270 Islamic text The Wonders of Creation and the Oddities of Existence:
This is a great evil in the sea. It is like the crocodiles in the Nile River. Also it comes at a specific time mainly to the Tigris River… It has teeth like spearheads. It is as long as a palm-tree. Its eyes are like fires of blood. It has an ugly shape; all other species run away from it.
Unfortunately, we also meet Floridian adrenaline-junkies like Mark Quartino, who claims, “Any shark that swims, I can kill.” He charges beer-swilling yuppies to fish on his fifty-foot boat, unmoved by the mounds of raw data that reveal vanishing species. Eilperin tempers Quartino’s exploits with the wonderful work of activist/researchers like Alison Kock and Boris Worm. They bring media attention to the fact that sharks are apex predators the oceans need to stay healthy.
But Eilperin then brings us to the black-bottomed depth that I dreaded while reading this book: shark’s fin soup. This is a dish served mainly in Asia (but everywhere else, too) that succeeds on pure mystique. It has no taste, no nutritional value, and is primarily something only the wealthy can afford.
Here, my frustration and rage turn everything red. Two-thirds of the way through most nature books the main question becomes, “How can we prove that this animal/plant/environment has value enough not to be wiped from the Earth?” The answer is always continuous financial exploitation (and never that the world needn’t provide us with anything to simply be). Our author acknowledges this, and explores the intriguing solution already in play for sharks. But they share their story with phytoplankton, coral reefs and the oceans themselves, which are in dire shape indeed. Whether this is your first or fiftieth natural history read, dive in. There are bars on the cage, not that you’ll need them for long.
Rohan Maitzen, Senior Editor and Host of Novel Readings
2012 was a year with many ups and downs in my reading — and I don’t mean so much in the quality of books I read, though of course, as always, there were variations there too. No, what strikes me particularly looking back over 2012 is that the most memorable books of this past year were either exhilarating or devastating, and the contrasting experiences reminded me (in case I needed it) that the best reading is not always the most comfortable. The best books are — don’t you agree? — the ones you have the best conversations with and about, whether those discussions are tense, hostile, or inspiring.
First up in the tense and hostile category would be Edward St. Aubyn’s Patrick Melrose novels. The publication this year of the series finale, At Last, generated enough buzz that I decided to get caught up with the first four. A few pages into Never Mind, I was so repelled by its arch cruelty that I nearly stopped reading, but I was drawn onward by St. Aubyn’s overt but tautly-controlled artistry — the only other contemporary novelist I can think of who makes me feel so strongly that he places each word in precisely the right place for his purposes is Ian McEwan. And I was interested in St. Aubyn’s purposes, too, both moral and aesthetic. They included, I thought, setting up a limit-test for our sympathies, for our willingness to keep reading when no allowances are made for wishful transcendence. Or was that too grim an interpretation? I wasn’t entirely sure, and knowing that the last volume in the quartet was called Some Hope, I allowed myself a little hope and read on. By the end of the fifth novel, I had found hints, at last, that Patrick’s world — St. Aubyn’s world — bleak as it is, offers at least a faint glimpse of mercy, of “a course that is neither bitter nor false.”
The novel I was most reminded of as I read the Patrick Melrose novels was Madame Bovary, another book that tests our capacity to read without sympathy. Unlike St. Aubyn, Flaubert never relents: right to the last moment, on her death bed, when the “stream of black liquid [runs] out of her mouth like vomit,” Emma is a being painful to contemplate. The novel’s perfection lies in the severity — the beauty, even — with which it fulfills its intentions. Nonetheless, I found myself repelled by those intentions. Where is the rule that says great art, or at any rate great realist novels, must rule out of order any belief in our best selves? The novel I love best, Middlemarch, is also morally ruthless, but it sees us complete: full of love as well as bile. But I haven’t been able to stop thinking about Madame Bovary since I finished it; it has become one of the touchstones against which I test my assumptions and prejudices about fiction.
Molly Peacock’s The Paper Garden is the opposite of these novels in every imaginable way. Open-ended, exploratory, inquiring, inspiring, it invites us to celebrate the unlikely times and ways in which people can discover their own unique gifts. Part memoir, part biography, part something else much more difficult to define, the book (a beautiful object in its own right) interweaves Peacock’s own reflections on creativity, aging, and sexuality with the story of Mary Delany, who at the age of 72 found her bliss making exquisite paper collages of botanical specimens. That it took her so long to grow into her genius is, for Peacock, thrilling rather than dispiriting. “Some things,” she concludes, “take living long enough to do.” Even if you are somehow unmoved by the fragile beauty and astonishing longevity of Delany’s delicate work, the deeper premise (indeed, the promise) of the book is surely harder to resist: that living itself is an art that requires endless creativity, and that we should not imagine, or fear, that our hope of finding our way fades with our youth.