“A few books I’ve just read sail by like schooners on the way to the Bermuda Triangle, where they will disappear without a trace.”
From “Start of a Late Autumn Novel,” by Tomas Tranströmer (Robert Bly, Translator)
I’m either incredibly fortunate with my reading choices or far less discriminating than Tomas Tranströmer (both, certainly), as I can happily say that few books I read in 2011 are likely to disappear into any Bermuda Triangle. Even if they did, one of my favorite stories from 2010, Frigyes Karinthy’s “Two Ships,” resoundingly affirms the value of venturing off the edge of the earth. Having started the year with more than 20 reading “projects” in mind, I see now that I accomplished exactly two of them. In place of the others, I read books stumbled upon in the library, mentioned in articles and reviews, a few from my to-be-read pile, a few from my already-read-pile, and many suggested by friends, strangers, and other bloggers. Never have I read so - wantonly.
But what a rewarding and wide-ranging year. Of the 80 or so books I finished, over half were in translation and another handful were in French (for me still a kind of translation), so I seem to be in line with The Observer ’s recent labeling of 2011 as “The Year of the Translator.”
2011 was also my first year of keeping a book blog. The transition from private log to public blog has not been smooth, and I’m only beginning to learn about how blogging works. But a great, unanticipated benefit of the shift has been expanded exposure to so many talented book bloggers, whose writing has been penetrating, inspiring, exalting, and humbling. For 2012, I can only hope to fail better at aspiring to write - and to read - so well.
One of the two projects I set out to accomplish and actually accomplished was to read the works of Italian writer Antonio Tabucchi thus far translated into English. Tabucchi won me over several years ago when I read his Rêves de Rêves in French translation, and then again last year when I read Requiem: Une Hallucination, also in French. He’s among my favorite living writers, not simply in his virtuosity and versatility (he has an uncanny ability to make each of his works seem entirely different from the others), but also in his activist role, having been at the forefront of defending a number of politically persecuted writers (most notably journalist Roberto Saviano) and having dared to expose, at great personal cost, corruption in Silvio Berlusconi’s government. The Tabucchi works I read this year include the novels Pereira Declares, The Missing Head of Damasceno Monteiro, Indian Nocturne, The Edge of the Horizon, and the short story collections Little Misunderstandings of No Importance, It’s Getting Later All the Time, Letter from Casablanca, The Woman of Porto Pim, and The Flying Creatures of Fra Angelico. Of these, I’d probably pick Pereira Declares and Indian Nocturne as my favorites, but all, without exception, count among my favorite books of 2011.
The Book of Disquiet, by Fernando Pessoa (Richard Zenith, translator). The second of the projects I managed to accomplish. Tabucchi and Pessoa came as something of a package deal, since the work of the former owes a tremendous debt to the latter, whom Tabucchi has translated, taught, and written about critically, and whose presence infuses most of Tabucchi’s own work. Discussion of The Book of Disquiet is set for the end of March as part of the Wuthering Expectations Portuguese Literature Challenge.
A Time for Everything, by Karl Knausgaard (James Anderson, translator). The most impressive contemporary novel I read in 2011.
Season of Migration to the North, by Tayib Saleh (Denys Johnson-Davies, translator). A stunning and scathing novella so attuned to both large political forces and the impact of small individual decisions that after putting it down I sensed a dividing line between all that I had read before and everything I would read subsequent. I can think of few novels that have so abruptly made me feel how little I know and how critical it is to question one’s assumptions.
The Man in Flames, by Serge Filippini (Liz Nash, translator). A historical novel about heretical 16th century philosopher Giordano Bruno, who comes across in French author Filippini’s deeply affecting work as one of the great figures of our time. I say our time, because more than 400 years after Bruno’s death we’re only beginning to catch up to him. Structured across Bruno’s last seven days in prison prior to his being burned at the stake, The Man in Flames takes a free hand in introducing fictional elements into Bruno’s story, but always in service of producing a powerful vision of his time and his fight against anti-intellectualism, superstition, fundamentalism, brutality and intolerance.
The Story of Zahra, by Hanan Al-Shaykh (Peter Ford, translator). If literature has an ameliorative function – if it can actually change people’s perceptions and deepen understanding – I might well choose The Story of Zahra as one of the works I’d most want to see read across the world. In its unconventional, unsentimental and revelatory depiction of a young woman growing up in war-torn Beirut, it overturned whatever stereotypical notions I may have had about women in the Middle East. Thanks to M. Lynx Qualey at Arabic Literature (In English) for leading me to this brave, intense roar of a novel.
Mendiants et Orgueilleux, by Albert Cossery. Egyptian-born Cossery’s radical coterie of “proud beggars” (the title used in the recent reissue of an English translation) in the alleys of Cairo is subversive, gritty, defiant, shocking, pungent, playful, and morbidly funny. This certainly won’t be the last novel I’ll read by this strikingly singular writer.
Stealth, by Sonallah Ibrahim (Hosam Aboul-Ela, translator). Ibrahim’s Amrikanli: Un Autumne à San Francisco is the novel I’d most like to see translated into English. I also read this year his first work translated into English, a short collection of stories entitled The Smell of It, the title story of which clearly lays the foundations for Stealth.
Rosa Candida, by Audur Ava Ólafsdóttir (Catherine Eyjólfsson, translator). Though I read it in French, an English translation has appeared under the title The Greenhouse. To write successfully about happiness requires some daring; to write successfully about transcendence and beatitude in a contemporary story about accidental parents requires utter fearlessness.
The Maias, by José Maria Eça De Queiros (Margaret Jull Costa, translator). Though it made last year’s “Best of 2010” summary, it’s so good that I’m putting it on this “Best of 2011” list as well. Thanks to Tom at Wuthering Expectations for prompting me to read this marvelous novel for the second time in as many years.
Point de Lendemain, by Vivant Denon (also read in the English translation by Lydia Davis, No Tomorrow). A delectable, capricious caracole of a story that creates an elaborate, almost occult metaphor for initiation into the mysteries of erotic love in its depiction of the amorous and adulterous escapades of 18th century libertines along the banks of the Seine.
Tomorrow in the Battle Think on Me, by Javier Marias (Margaret Jull Costa, translator). I read Marias’ Your Face Tomorrow trilogy last year, and while Tomorrow in the Battle doesn’t possess the vast scope and ambition of that work, the conceit Marias presents on the novel’s first page – a man’s coming to grips with the sudden death of a woman during their one-night encounter – develops in such unexpected ways and takes off in such unexpected directions that I’d be remiss leaving it off this list.
Notable other new discoveries include the unfairly neglected work of multi-talented Czech writer Jan Křesadlo in Gravelarks; fiercely imaginative contemporary Chinese writer Can Xue; the wildly entertaining 17th century Chinese ghost stories of Pu Songling; Caroline Blackwood’s short, deadpan creations of unforgettable characters in The Stepdaughter and Great Granny Webster; Robert Greenfield’s superb biography of Frederic Prokosch; the gothic, Gorey-esque wit of Barbara Comyns in Who was Changed and Who Was Dead; further travels with the late Patrick Leigh Fermor in Mani: Travels in the Southern Pelaponnese and in his sole work of fiction, The Violins of Saint Jacques; Stoner, by John Williams, an American writer surely deserving of as much attention as his better known peers; Greek writer Margarita Karapanou, whose Kassandra and the Wolf should be a lesson to writers of confessional fictions of childhood as to how to go about it; Anna Kavan’s intense, genre-bending apocalyptic vision in Ice; the strikingly formalist historical fictions of Marta Morazzoni in Girl in a Turban (a book with so many open windows and doors that one could probably get home by using them the same way John Cheever’s “The Swimmer” used swimming pools); Nobel Prize winner Grazia Deledda’s unforgettably atmospheric story of poverty and redemption in Sardinia in Reeds in the Wind.
Works reread this year, in addition to The Maias, only deepened my appreciation for them: Joan Didion’s great Sacramento River Delta novel Run River and Terry Andrews’ The Story of Harold (I recently received as a gift Harold et le Rat, a French translation I did not know existed, and which will no doubt substantially amplify my knowledge of filthy French slang). I was also thrilled to re-discover, after hunting for many years for them without success, a trilogy of novels I’d read as a child but of which I had no recollection other than of a cover image. A chance mention of a book illustrator led to a cascading series of memories, and within days I had reread British science fiction writer John Christopher’s “Tripods” trilogy. I was delighted to find that although my tastes have changed, Christopher’s books were as entertaining as I’d remembered, the kind of expert fiction for young people that doesn’t condescend or eschew difficult situations and mature conflicts.
Finally, every year I leave some works unfinished, not always (or even often) because I don’t find them worthwhile. Though I did not finish Thursday’s Child, the autobiography of singer Eartha Kitt, Kitt’s stunning opening chapters, portraying her childhood in rural southern poverty and the sacrifices of her mother, recounted with searing, unsentimental clarity and force, are as powerful as anything I’ve read in American writing, and among the highlights of a terrific year of literary discovery.
 Also available in English under the titles Declares Pereira and Pereira Maintains, all three translated by Patrick Creagh.
 The Edge of the Horizon also appears in a British edition as Vanishing Point; both feature the same Tim Parks translation, though the latter also contains the short collections The Woman of Porto Pim and The Flying Creatures of Fra Angelico.