Happy… Chinese new year? We’re already well into February, so I might as well use that as an excuse for my tardiness in putting up this end-of-year post. These annual exercises, alas, seem increasingly to be turning into poor stand-ins for the whole concept of blogging. Nevertheless, I had a great year of reading and will pass along some highlights, presented here without further ado except to note that names of translator(s), as appropriate, are provided in parentheses.
Les Nuits de Sertão, by João Guimarães Rosa (J.-J. Villiard)
I was transfixed by this French translation of Buriti, the last of the seven novels that make up Brazilian writer João Guimarães Rosa’s great cycle of novels, Corpo de Baile, which are set in various areas of the vast sertão of Brazil’s interior and can be read in any order. I won’t discuss Buriti at length here as I am determined to write a more detailed post on it, but suffice to say that I reveled in this return to Guimarães Rosa: his constantly inventive prose, which seems to grow organically like some wild, incredibly ornate plant; his rich evocations of the natural world and the cultures of the sertão; his complex explorations of human relations; and his grand, singular vision. Guimarães Rosa sets his novel around a remote fazenda where a worldly-wise woman from the urban coast, abandoned by her faithless husband, has been brought to live with her husband’s father and family. A giant buriti palm serves as a silent, imposing sentinel around which the action dances. Having now read four of the seven novels of Corpo de Baile in French (it hasn't been translated into English), I'm coming around to a view that the cycle may be an even greater achievement than the author’s celebrated Grande Sertão Veredas (The Devil to Pay in the Backlands).
Middlemarch, by George Eliot
The New Yorker magazine once featured an anecdote describing someone coming to the end of George Eliot’s Middlemarch while riding on a public bus and being confronted by another passenger who exclaimed through frustrated tears, “You’re actually going to finish it, aren’t you!” Far from finding completion of Middlemarch the hard-won accomplishment it’s sometimes rumored to be, I reveled in Eliot’s language and almost fairy-tale like framing of her novel, and laughed aloud at her fine-grained sense of humor as she tracks the changing fortunes and enlarging capacities of her marvelous creation, Dorothea Brooke. Eliot examines the position of women and queries the institution of marriage while simultaneously creating a catalog, almost a sophisticated zibaldone, of aspects of English provincial life. This first reading seemed a mere casual introduction; I look forward to a return visit.
Kolymsky Heights, by Lionel Davidson
Thanks to Dorian of Eiger, Mönch & Jungfrau, I read five books last year written by this British writer previously unknown to me but whose work I am now determined to read in its entirety. Kolymsky Heights was by far the best of the five and almost certainly the most purely enjoyable escapist reading pleasure of the year, but I greatly enjoyed Davidson’s other books too (Making Good Again, The Night of Wencelas, The Rose of Tibet and his imaginative young adult fantasy novel Under Plum Lake). Kolymsky Heights, Davidson’s final work, appeared after nearly a dozen years of silence from the writer. The pay-off for that wait is a genuinely exciting, smart spy thriller that unfolds across the frozen landscapes of eastern Siberia and features the Chukchi people of the region. And since I just happened to have another book about the region sitting on the shelf unread, Chukchi writer Yuri Rytkheu’s fascinating novel A Dream in Polar Fog, I hauled it down and read that too. This made for a terrific pairing of the kind I’d only once before experienced: with Guimaraes Rosa’s The Devil to Pay in the Backlands and Euclides da Cunha’s Backlands: The Canudos Campaign. Maybe someone oughta write a blog post about great book pairings like this.
The Children’s Crusade, by Marcel Schwob (Kit Schluter)
I turn now to a book of only 50 or so pages. I took up several of Marcel Schwob’s works in 2018, including his Imaginary Lives in both the original French and in an outstanding new translation by Chris Clarke, as well as some of his essays on poet François Villon. But the Schwob that really wowed me was his concentrated, slim book The Children’s Crusade, in which the author employs the fictional portraiture he exhibited in Imaginary Lives to create characters peopling the route taken towards the Middle East by children enlisted in one of the medieval crusades. Schwob blends innocence and depravity to forge a dramatic, rich and disturbing prose poem.
The Sioux, by Irene Handl
A similar mix of innocence and cruelty appears in British character actress Irene Handl’s nearly uncharacterizable novel The Sioux, which I reviewed here. I read Handl’s campy, Southern Gothic tale (and its sequel, The Gold-Tipped Pfitzer) open-mouthed, not quite believing what I’d stumbled upon. Handl’s funny/not-funny, part English/part French tale of the sordid complexities of a filthy rich French family who shuttle between Paris and New Orleans dragging about their leukemia-stricken adolescent dauphin provided one of the more insolite reading experiences I’ve had in years, a work to shelve next to Terry Andrew’s The Story of Harold, two smart, singular novels that cut sharply through American niceties and made me laugh and cry in nearly equal measure.
The Werewolf of Paris, by Guy Endore
Remarkably, The Sioux was not the only novel I read in 2018 written in Franglish, as Endore’s 1933 novel mélanges a lot of Français avec his Anglais, including a number of words completely new to me. Also new to me was the book’s author, an American communist who worked in Hollywood and later became an activist known for his successful work to free 17 Mexican-American youths falsely accused of a crime. If asked to rank the works in which some of the Famous Monsters of Filmland got their start, I’d be obliged to put Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein at the top, but Endore’s weirdly entertaining, sometimes genuinely chilling romp might well edge out Bram Stoker’s Dracula or Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde to take second place. Told in a conversational tone by an engaging, sometimes erratic narrator, The Werewolf of Paris unfolds against the backdrop of the Paris Commune and features some terrific evocations of the Commune’s chaos.
The Belly of Paris, by Emile Zola (Brian Nelson)
I’d been attacked by Endore’s werewolf on my way to a group read of The Belly of Paris, and so only got to Zola’s novel later. But once I did, I gorged myself on his indelible portrayal of late 19th century life in and around Les Halles, today a commercial shopping zone utterly void of character but for more than a century the great food market of the city. What delicious fun, from start to finish! Zola serves up catalog after catalog of the market’s gastronomical offerings with indulgence and delirium and, in a few scenes, a decadence that almost certainly inspired Raymond Roussel’s surreal, over-the-top creations. Amid the novel’s dazzling showiness one almost forgets that there’s an actual plot.
The Fortunes of War, by Olivia Manning
Olivia Manning’s massive The Fortunes of War is another work I read thanks to Dorian, who kindly invited me to join him in reading and writing about The Levant Trilogy, the second half of this sprawling work that stretches across six novels and almost as many countries. The story follows English teacher Guy Pringle, his intrepid young wife Harriet, and a coterie of Brits and others as they are pursued from Bucharest to Athens to Cairo by the darkening, encroaching events of World War II. I had a blast reading these books and will be living with Manning’s memorable characters for a long time.
A View of the Harbour, Elizabeth Taylor
Taylor’s novel is a departure from the other works I’ve read by her, all set in London. Here Taylor appears deliberately to evoke Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, but I have not been able to tease out whether she intended homage, a realist reaction against Woolf’s experimentalism, or a bit of both. I’m going to go with the last. Like Woolf’s novel, Taylor’s focuses on a family and the people around them in a small seaside town. It’s a place remote in time and space, where the enforced intimacy of small town life generates its own hidden yearnings and secrets. A visiting painter, Bertram Hemingway, substitutes here for Lily Briscoe, as he’s engaged in painting a view of the harbor from the novel’s opening until at the end he achieves his own vision (and Taylor hers). Taylor’s characteristic lightness of touch and tender humor are knitted with an unsparing honesty as her own lighthouse beam illuminates her characters in a work quite a bit darker than its airy seaside setting might suggest. Jacqui over at the Jacquiwine blog has been burning through Taylor's corpus of work, and also wrote about A View of the Harbour.
Robertino, L’Apprenti de le Corbusier, by Louise Doutreligne
This creative-non-fiction “récit” by French author Doutreligne takes on an unusual subject: the sponsorship by a great artist of a young person, in this case the architect Le Corbusier’s “adoption,” encouraged by his wife Yvonne, of Roberto (Robertino) Rebutato, a 12-year-old who worked in the humble seaside restaurant that furnished meals during Le Corbusier and his wife’s stays at Roquebrune-Cap-Martin. It’s a beautifully-told story of mentorship, commitment and attentiveness, of the impact opportunity and a great mentor can have on a young life, particularly since young Rebutato developed into a well-known architect in his own right. The book has been adapted into an acclaimed theatre piece by Doutreligne and her partner, Jean-Luc Paliès.
Le Croissant et la perle, by Dominque Fernandez
This terrific volume takes first prize in this year's non-fiction category. French art historian Fernandez provides an illustrated overview of the baroque from Naples to St. Petersburg. As a guide to the Baroque, Fernandez is witty, smart, knowledgeable and full of gems of observation, such as his view of Viennese pastries as a delectable example of the Baroque continuing into the present day. All required in the way of confirmation is to turn one’s gaze from Graban’s Plague Column in the center of Vienna to the pillar of cream on one’s own dessert plate.
Cappella Carafa, Rome
I realize I’ve yet to mention any Italians, even though Italian literature remained a major focus of my reading this past year. I read 14 Italian works to completion, plus a few others concerning Italy. Favorites this year included Sicilian writer Gaettano Savatteri’s La Conjuration des loquaces (Claude Galli), the title here given in French since that’s the language in which I read it - another novel unavailable in English translation. I fully shared the enthusiasm of reader JLS, who’d kindly recommended the book. Leonardo Sciascia’s The Moro Affair (Sacha Rabinovitch) remained one of the few books I had not yet read from this great writer, also Sicilian, so I was pleased finally to get to it. Italian politician Aldo Moro had been a fixture in my head since my first trip to Rome, when I had to pass by the memorial of his 1978 assassination twice daily to get to and from my hosts, who lived just down the street. This short work, an extended essay more like a novel, is quintessential Sciascia: unsentimental, rigorously methodical, ferociously moral. He dissects Moro’s kidnapping by the Red Brigades during Italy’s Years of Lead, carefully examining and weighing the response of negotiators and the failure of the government, the press and all of Italy to liberate Moro. The result is little less than a vivisection of the state of Italy, a careful picking apart of the inept arguments and the abdication of democratic principles that led to Moro’s killing, and also a sharp rebuke to expedient and facile arguments that one should never negotiate with terrorists. I read two works by Swiss/Italian writer Fleur Jaeggy, including her own inventive take on Marcel Schwob, These Possible Lives (Minna Zelman) and Sweet Days of Discipline (Tim Parks), an intimate novel of female friendship, alienation and the exercise of authority in a Swiss boarding school. I found Domenico Starnone’s Trick (Jhumpa Lahiri) a delight, another great literary pairing since it engages deeply with Henry James’ “The Jolly Corner” (I had little enthusiasm, however, for Ties, another of Starnone’s works). I’ve seldom felt more ambivalent about a novel than I did about Luigi Malerba’s jolie-laide, slightly dated tale The Serpent (William Weaver), with its memorable narrator, an unreliable madman/cannibal whose observations are as imaginative as his actions are execrable. I loved Pietro Chiara’s Le 28 Octobre (Marie-Françoise Balzan), a spry, wry, witty novella with echoes of Fellini’s Amarcord and which itself might make a great short film if for no other reason than to capture its grand, cinematic denouement, a mocking of Mussolini’s pomp and fascism on the order of Bernini’s famous elephant ostentatiously presenting its derrière to the seat of the Papal Inquisition in Rome.
Honorable mentions go to Willa Cather’s Death Comes for the Archbishop; Brian Merriman’s The Midnight Court, a bawdy, free-wheeling 17thcentury poem translated from the Gaellic into modern English by acclaimed contemporary poet Ciaran Carson; J. L. Carr’s concentrated, elliptical novella A Month in the Country, which touches obliquely on the devastation of WWI; Jules Verne’s atmospheric South American work Magellania (Benjamin Ivry), which had me poring over maps of Patagonia; a non-fiction trilogy of essays about art and nature in Nevada’s Great Basin, The Void, the Grid and the Sign, by William Fox, whose book I’m happy to add to my list of great works about the desert; a reread of Miklós Bánffy’s They Were Counted (Patrick Thursfield and Katalin Bánffy-Jelen) while on a visit to Transylvania that included a stop at the Bánffy family’s ruined castle outside of Cluj-Napoca; and Javier Marías’ Berta Isla (Margaret Jull Costa), a work in which a character’s job consumes his personal life and thus seemed a little too relatable.
Mystery Hotel, by Louisa Mae Johnston
Finally, I wish to acknowledge the passing of my dear friend Louisa last spring just before her 92nd birthday and highlight her delightful children’s novel, Mystery Hotel, which I finally got around to reading last year. In addition to a long career in editing, Louisa had also been an author in her own right. Besides writing several mysteries and romances while in her eighties, she also put out a few books of children’s literature, including Mystery Hotel (1964), which is set in a Chicago hotel and involves a jewel theft. There are also cookies. The book beautifully conveys Johnston’s warmth, generosity and playful wit, as well as her love of all things French; she was learning the language in her final years.
Inside book cover, Mystery Hotel
Many thanks to everyone who stopped by seraillon in 2018, and happy reading to all in 2019 - and all through the Year of the Pig.