Our Year in Reading 2015
Rohan Maitzen, Senior Editor
George Eliot considered historical fiction the most difficult of all forms, “because it demands as much accurate and minute knowledge as creative vigor.” Still, she acknowledged, in rare cases “that genius which has familiarized itself with all the relics of an ancient period can sometimes, by the force of its sympathetic divination, restore the missing notes in the ‘music of humanity.’” Where Eliot’s own historical novel Romola fails (albeit brilliantly), Nicola Griffith’s Hild succeeds: in this complex, emotionally resonant story of the early life of Saint Hilda of Whitby, we hear not just notes but whole chords, a music profoundly suggestive of a world that — while unmistakably human — is so unfamiliar that Hild could reasonably be read as fantasy rather than history.
In Hild, Griffith luxuriates in the kind of detailed world-building familiar to readers of the peerless Scottish historical novelist Dorothy Dunnett:
Rhenish glass: cups and bowls and flasks. Wheel-thrown pottery, painted in every colour and pattern. Cloth. Swords — swords for sale — and armor. Jewels, with stones Hild had never seen, including great square diamonds, as grey as a Blodmonath sky. Perfume in tiny stoppered jars, and next to them even smaller jars — one the size of Hild’s fingernail — sealed with wax: poison. Lumps of incense wrapped in wax linen in straw-lined baskets. Timber arranged in layered rows: oak and elm, poplar and birch; raw and seasoned. Bronze ewers. Frankish throwing axes. Pigs of lead and iron. Knives: too glorious to use, inlaid with gold and mother-of-pearl; or plain, with sturdy elm hilts; or shark’s-tooth size with cunning sheaths, to be worn at wrist or ankle.
The effect is cinematic: we are immersed in the sights and sounds of this foreign country that is the distant past.
Yet it’s the people even more than the setting that make Hild memorable, and the remarkable way Griffish conveys the way their lives are balanced on a precipice of historical change. Hild herself is a seer, and thus a woman of extraordinary influence in ancient Britain. But she will become a Christian saint, and through her we thus feel the yielding of one system of beliefs to another, a great spiritual shift that is nonetheless experienced as a kind of continuity: “She was baptised to Christ — their name for the pattern, her path, her wyrd. She was still herself.” In Hild herself, Griffith gives us a protagonist of exceptional and unapologetic strength, and also one who is unapologetically and completely female: Hild is that rare book in which the primacy in it of a woman’s body does not coerce the plot towards either romance or maternity but simply is. Hild was an extraordinary reading experience — and an unfinished one, happily, as Griffith is at work on the sequel, the novel that will bring Hild to the completion of her destiny.
Steve Donoghue, Managing Editor
2015 was a year full of fantastic and well-executed editions of various classics both highbrow and low (a new translation of The Tale of Genji and a new volume of The Mysteries of Paris occupying the respective ends of that spectrum), but for my tastes, none was more enticing than the new Penguin Classic Deluxe Edition of the novels of Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle. This hefty volume included A Study in Scarlet, The Valley of Fear, The Sign of Four, and of course The Hound of the Baskervilles, with a wonderful wraparound cover by Adam Simpson and an introductory essay by Michael Dirda, and it takes readers into a slightly slower, more textured Holmes-and-Watson world than the faster-paced one they encounter in the famous short stories. Here we see the first meeting between Holmes and Watson in A Study in Scarlet, revel in a breathtakingly dramatic river-chase in The Sign of Four, get intimations of the nefarious Professor Moriarty in The Valley of Fear, and experience the seemingly supernatural terrors of the nighttime moors in The Hound of the Baskervilles, and although Dirda’s smart Introduction can at times feel a little pat (like roughly 15,000 Holmes curtain-raisers before him, he ends his essay with “the game is afoot!”), he’s surely indulging in gentlemanly understatement when he observes that “compared with the tightly composed short stories, these book-length cases are structurally awkward.” In fact even the most rhetorically-controlled of these four novels, The Hound of the Baskervilles, must certainly be said to fail as a novel – if its two main characters had not already been famous when it appeared, it’s hard to think how it could be accounted anything more than mediocre. And yet reading the novels all together in a volume like this yields enormous insights into Doyle the writer; here we see his plotting and pacing freed from the gimmick/MacGuffin that in almost all cases rules the individual Holmes short stories, and the impression is unfailingly fascinating. Not to mention the fact that the novels themselves are every bit as entertaining as they were a century ago for Holmes and Watson fans.
Greg Waldmann, Editor in Chief
The thing I like most about lists like these is that I’m free to write about books that I would be irresponsible to write about in any other circumstance. For instance, earlier this year I read Robin Lane Fox’s Pagans and Christians, a history of those eponymous peoples between the second and fourth centuries AD. I loved it, but I don’t have the expertise to evaluate his conclusions, much less the lingual faculties necessary to parse how well Fox has represented his sources. A review of this book written by myself could be a disaster; at best it would be terribly incomplete.
But in this space I can tell you that though Pagans and Christians is long, learned and very dense, it is wonderful and galvanizing in the best fashion, expanding the contours of your understanding in unexpected ways and impelling you through difficult parts by sheer force of execution. Fox has a tendency to surprise you with acute, encapsulating sentences (“Throughout the ancient world, it was normal to prefer divination to indecision”), or startle you with a sudden joke, as when he explains the visions from the Book of Revelation:
God appears in the abstract, like a precious stone, blazing in brilliant red and white… The seer understands what he sees through the messages which he hears… a voice has to identify the multitudes who are dressed in white and explain the avenging angels on horseback who are to butcher a third of the human race. These figures are presented through similes and symbols, not through the clear definition of art. Christ, the Lamb, appears with seven horns, while his seven eyes shine like fire and his feet like burnished bronze: “altogether,” as Jung concluded, “it must have looked pretty awful.”
Fox also has a special aptitude for scene-setting and empathy, twin gifts necessary to bypass the filters of a more skeptical age, and they evoked for this non-believing reader the charged experience which must have greeted pilgrims to the famed Christian ascetics, or supplicants who traveled great distances to find the wisdom of Apollo at one of the god’s imposing shrines. These are rare talents in any kind of writer, much less a historian, and they furnished some of my favorite reading memories of this past year.
Sam Sacks, Founding Editor
While fighting with the Resistance in the mountainous region of southeast France, the poet René Char kept a notebook of his thoughts and impressions. In 1944, Char was airlifted to Algeria to help prepare the Allies for their approaching land invasion. Before he left he buried the notebook in the cellar of a rural cottage. In 1945 he came back and retrieved it, and soon afterwards, at the encouragement of Albert Camus, he published it under the title Feuillets d’Hypnos, which Mark Hutchinson has shortened to Hypnos for his beautiful new translation published this year by Seagull Books.
The book is a masterpiece of war poetry in part because it has so little resemblance to what we commonly imagine war poetry to be. It is pensive and philosophical rather than grandiloquent or dramatic (Char likened its numbered series of brief reflections to Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations). Its few realistic depictions of fighting are disarmingly dreamlike and minor key, as though observed at a vast remove (Hypnos refers to the Greek god of sleep). Char’s native style, descending from the avant garde lineage of Mallarmé and Valéry, worked through surreal, fragmentary juxtapositions of images and impressions. But while its obscurity immunized it from sentimentality, this form of writing tilted toward portentous symbolism and apocalyptic visions. In Hypnos, Char intentionally guarded against this tendency (“I must resist my inclination for vapid pessimism of this kind, an intellectual heritage,” he writes). The mise-en-scene is gently pastoral, and the mood is one of stoical acceptance and cautious hope that, at moments, blooms into joyous celebrations of human camaraderie.
The writing frequently resolves into crystalline aphorisms: “We are torn between hunger for knowledge and despair at having known. The goad won’t abandon its sting, nor we our hope.” “Man is capable of doing what he is incapable of imagining. His mind furrows the galaxy of the absurd.” “Fulfill with regard to others what you have promised to yourself alone. That is your contract.” Then suddenly reminders of imminent violence pierce the calm surface before being absorbed again into the fullness of experience: “We have taken stock, over every inch of our bodies, of the pain the torturer may one day exact; then, with a heavy heart, have gone out to face him.” Sometimes, the work of the French Resistance itself presents scenes that have the tender peculiarity of a poem:
Ketty the dog takes as much pleasure as we do in gathering the parachute drops. She goes briskly from one to the other without barking, knowing exactly what is required. Once the work is over, she stretches out, happy, on the dune formed by the parachutes and falls asleep.
Char has had good fortune in his English translations. Those by Mary Ann Caws and Nancy Kline in the bilingual collection Furor & Mystery from Black Widow Press in 2011 are marvels of laser-like concision. But great books deserve translations in excess of what they actually require, and Hutchinson’s version is wonderfully lucid and supple. It was my favorite book of poetry in 2015.
John Cotter, Executive Editor
Ahead of a class I was to teach on Moby Dick, I started the year with Hershel Parker’s two-thousand page biography of Herman Melville in two egregious volumes. Parker dedicated his existence to amassing every detail he possibly could about the poor Melville’s own sad life and brief career and the whole throws handful after handful of trivia at the reader’s eyes but in the end sheds little light. Alas, “there is no folly of the beasts of the earth which is not infinitely outdone by the madness of men.” But nothing could ruin the pleasure of reading and teaching the novel itself, a book made up of an entirely different kind of endlessness.
While Melville was composing his masterwork in an attic room in Pittsfield he happened upon an edition of Shakespeare with print big enough to finally understand and he fell into the language. He didn’t surface. This year, for the first time, I began to read Moby Dick as a collaboration, from the constant and improbable soliloquizing of the Pequod’s crew to the meditations everywhere about free will. Is there a divinity that shapes our ends, or something darker? In King Lear, Gloucester finds the mutiny and discord around him “under the prediction” of astrology. His wicked son scoffs: “As if we were villains,” Edmund rolls his eyes, “by a divine thrusting on.” Ahab, more awestruck, more credulous, asks himself in horror, “Ahab, Ahab? Is it I, God, or who, that lifts this arm?”
Later, wiser, Gloucester determines, “as flies to wanton boys are we to th’ gods / They kill us for their sport.” Just so, Ahab is god of the Pequod, and will “drag the whole ship’s company down to doom with him.” As in Shakespeare, there are no ready answers. There is only drama, debate. Melville offers echoes and reposts to Anthony, to Coriolanus and, here, to Jacques (with a nod to Hamlet along the way):
There is no steady unretracing progress in this life; we do not advance through fixed gradations, and at the last one pause: –through infancy’s unconscious spell, boyhood’s thoughtless faith, adolescence’ doubt (the common doom), then scepticism, then disbelief, resting at last in manhood’s pondering repose of If. But once gone through, we trace the round again; and are infants, boys, and men, and Ifs eternally. Where lies the final harbor, whence we unmoor no more?
Reading Moby Dick as a conversation between Melville and Shakespeare was the highlight of my reading year.
Justin Hickey, Editor
Say that many graphic novels are modern fairy tales and you’re not wrong. While several brilliantly crafted comic series were collected this year, including East of West, Daredevil, and The Sandman: Overture, Autumnlands is the one that most directly answers our desire to be led down eerie paths by the familiar. In this latest world created by legendary writer Kurt Busiek (Astro City, Marvels) and artist Benjamin Dewey, the familiar is talking animals.
Tooth & Claw collects the first six issues of the Image comic, and shows us a place that runs on meticulously curated magic. Spells, glyphs, and daily prayers to various gods keep the lights on and the Seventeen Cities of the Autumnlands floating in the sky. In these cities—which recall Renaissance Europe—dozens of animal species live harmoniously, decked out in cloaks and jewelry, and perhaps tickling the back of your mind with the question of what might happen if Dunstan (an English bull terrier) falls in love with Enna (an owl).
Yet the same way that great fairy tales bewitch children, Busiek, Dewey, and colorist Jordie Bellaire quickly silence our need to say “Yeah, but…” with superlative artistry. We learn in the first chapter that magic is fading, and without it the animals’ stately lives in the clouds will crumble. A warthog named Gharta says the best wizards should combine their skills for a complex reach into the past—to the time of the Great Champion. This hero can help access more magic. A ruling councilor (and bald eagle) named Tallon reminds her that such a thing is forbidden, and after some argument, screams the warning. Here and elsewhere, Dewey’s realistic portrayal of animal faces sells the characters beautifully.
Below the lavish magic-run cities is a wilderness populated by bison, who wear giant dragonfly wings as skirts and live like Native Americans once did. Busiek’s first scene complicates our sympathies when Dunstan’s merchant father declares them “lesser beings,” not only short-changing the bison in a trade, but brutalizing the representative who calls them on it. Gharta, meanwhile, secretly assembles the help she needs to summon the Great Champion. Attempting to do so, however, punishes the city of Keneil’s strained magics. The floating network of structures plummets to the plains below. Bellaire’s muted washes that open the story briefly flare into rainbow whirls during the spell-casting panels. In the corpse-strewn aftermath, the colors ripen to characterize bruises, rubble, and blood.
Later, the Great Champion finally materializes. He’s nothing the Autumnlands has ever seen—a human, naked and wielding a sword. He arrives in time to defend the survivors of the crash against a horde of vengeful bison. The real miracle, though, is how easy Busiek and Dewey make it to read this in one sitting.
Robert Minto, Editor
Acquiring a second literature is a bit like acquiring a second language. Just as nuances of word order and oddities of usage bring home to the sojourner in a strange language how provincial their assumptions are, so new concatenations of genre and mysteries of allusion widen the horizons of the reader brave enough to venture beyond their culture’s canon. I don’t claim to be particularly brave, but I was taken, halfway through the year, by a sudden, inexplicable, and all-consuming passion for Latin American literature.
I don’t mean that I was suddenly intrigued by a novel or two, like a posturing dilettante — bandwagoning for the latest Bolaño or some blockbuster from the Boom — but that the whole breadth of Latin American literature from the obscurest reaches of Argentine Gaucho poetry to the latest novel by an institution like Vargas Llosa suddenly seemed equally, urgently interesting. Because I have been socialized to be an academic, I responded to the dictates of sovereign whim by making lists and consulting authorities. What ought I to read? I applied myself to fountainheads like Bello and Sarmiento and Borges. But because I am temperamentally unsystematic, I rebelled against my own strictures. Before long I found myself in a library at 2am, plucking novels from the relevant shelf with the indiscrimination of insomnia. Happily, I came up with Adolfo Bioy Casares’s Asleep In the Sun.
It was my most intense reading experience of the year. I won’t say my happiest — because it deeply unsettled me — but unquestionably it was my most intense. I was fortunate to know nothing about the book or its author. Since reading it I’ve seen the NYRB Classics edition which, by putting a spoiler on both the front and back cover — an image that gives away the plot and a blurb that hides nothing — would surely have neutered the experience for me. My own copy was packaged in one of those plasticky orange monstrosities of a cover, waterproof and industrial strength, favored by libraries, which offend the sensibilities but give nothing away about the text they hide.
There’s nothing like encountering surreal horror where you least expect it. At first Asleep In the Sun seems like a novel about an ineffectual man, the narrator, who is taken advantage of by everybody. But quickly the comedy of discomfort becomes a nightmare of paranoia: he is bullied into consigning his wife, Diana, to a mental asylum — or has he been maneuvered into giving her the perfect cover for an affair with a local dog-trainer? Or has her sister engineered the whole situation in an attempt to seduce him? Or is it all due to the jealous machinations of the old relative who has always kept house for him? But just when the narrator’s paranoia is about to become tiresome, the story takes a turn for the surreal and the horrifying, and he proves to have been insufficiently suspicious. The last third of the novel is a sort of Platonic ideal of the imprisoned-in-an-asylum story, mixed in with a little judicious body-snatching weirdness. I didn’t see it coming, so it really worked on me, left me rattled. But besides this startling effect, the book deserved my attention because it is a rich reflection on the curious distances between members of a family, the unbridgeable gaps and the undesired intimacies: without giving too much away for readers who might want to read the book, the surreal horror of the ending externalizes and symbolizes these problems of family distance.
“Outsiders,” observes the narrator at the beginning of the book, “would do better not to talk about private affairs, because they’re generally wrong. But who would dare tell the neighbors and the family: you are outsiders?”
And it was this theme — the condition of being, irreversibly but intimately, an outsider — just as much as the effect of the genre-surprise, that made Asleep In the Sun the highlight of my year in reading. It perfectly epitomized the experience of trying to acquire a second literature. In the attempt I realized: I’m an outsider. But a fascinated one. I wish upon all the readers of Open Letters Monthly the opportunity to be such an outsider next year.
Elisa Gabbert, Contributing Editor
When I’ve read or half-read a few too many middling, disappointing books in a row – often new books that don’t live up to their hype – I like to pick up something from the NYRB Classics series, since they are reliably wonderful. The best one I read this year, and the best novel I read this year period, was Journey by Moonlight by the Hungarian author Antal Szerb, originally published in 1937, newly translated by Len Rix.
Journey by Moonlight tells the story of a couple, Mihály and Erzsi, traveling through Italy on their honeymoon. One day at a café they bump into a man from Mihály’s past, János; he is rude and aggressive and severely disrupts their vibe. Later, Mihály is forced to tell his new wife about János and the rest of the cohort he ran with in his youth: Ervin, who has since become a monk, and two beautiful siblings named Éva and Tamás, and how important they were to his formation of selfhood. Mihály denies, then eventually confesses, his love for Éva.
Not long after, the couple gets separated when Mihály (intentionally?) misses their train to Rome. For the rest of the novel, they go about their own separate spiritual adventures. Abandoned, Erzsi is freed into a life of pleasure; she may dance and drink and conduct love affairs. Mihály reunites with the friends of his past, spends money that isn’t his, and basically comes to terms with his complete lack of ambition or responsibility. Like my favorite novel of 2014, Two Serious Ladies by Jane Bowles, Journey by Moonlight is hilarious, devastating, and full of fascinating ideas, strange obsessions that compel almost-normal people to ruin their own lives:
If he went home and worked steadily, sooner or later his father would forgive him.
But when he thought in detail, about this ‘work’ – his desk, the people he had to deal with, and above all the things that filled his time after work, the bridge parties, the Danube outings, the well-to-do ladies, he felt exasperated to the point of tears.
“What did the shade of Achilles say?” he pondered. “‘I would rather be a cotter in my father’s house than a prince among the dead.’ For me it’s the reverse. I’d rather be a cotter here, among the dead, than a prince at home, in my father’s house. Only, I’d need to know what exactly a cotter is ….”