December 1st, 2013 marked the third anniversary of this blog (well, technically it was November 17th, but I don’t count that first “test” post). I’ve liked writing the blog, and I’m grateful to all of you who have indicated that you’ve liked reading it. 2013 turned out to be a terrific year of reading, if perhaps not as good a year for writing. I managed only 19 posts, though if I subtract the time I spent away this year on various travels, my low production rate seems not significantly different from the two previous years. I can tell myself that, anyway.
Few themes appear to tie this year’s crop together; as usual, my reading has been unfocused and promiscuous. If I had to come up with an element to provide some cohesion, I might refer to this as my wandering-in-the-desert year, since I count ten books set in the desert (or maybe 11, if Lao She’s weird Chinese science fiction novel Cat Country, with its dusty gray and desolate cat people planet, can count).
João Guimarães Rosa and his fictions in and around the grand Brazilian sertão rank as this year’s biggest project; I read everything by him I could find in English as well as all but two works I could find in French that didn’t overlap the English ones. He may well be untranslatable, but I still found the challenges of gaining at least a tilted glimpse into this talented writer’s work to be worthwhile and fascinating, and I am deeply obliged to the other participants in this year’s group read of Guimarães Rosa’s Grande Sertão: Veredas (The Devil to Pay in the Backlands): Miguel, Richard, and Rise (links to their posts are listed at the bottom of the page here).
Casting a profound shadow over the rest of the year was Vassily Grossman’s monumental Life and Fate. Only a novel this masterful and important could live up to a title like that, but its breadth and deeply intimate account of the Second World War, from a Russian writer uncannily present at many of the war’s most significant events, make it one of giant novels of the 20th century, one that feels utterly indispensible. I have not written about it – yet. But please check out outstanding posts by other bloggers, again conveniently linked at Caravana de Recuerdos.
If one other novel from this year might challenge Grossman’s pre-eminent place, it is surely Alessandro Manzoni’s The Betrothed. Books like The Betrothed (are there any books like The Betrothed?) are why one reads literature, and I’ll consider myself immensely lucky if I find another novel as rewarding as this one in the coming year.
Another highlight of the year was Raymond Roussel, whose Impressions of Africa had been on my to-be-read list for two decades. I was baffled, bemused, and bewildered – and ultimately enthralled - to read this strange, captivating, premonitory work.
Other authors new to me from whose work I emerged with great enthusiasm included Leonora Carrington, Paul Scheerbart, Barbara Pym (a huge thanks to Levi Stahl for steering me her way), Elizabeth Taylor, Janet Lewis, and Jacques Yonnet. Among my favorite new discoveries is early 20th century British writer William Gerhardie. The two of his books I read this year, Futility and The Polyglots, rise easily into the cream, with their acutely literary, Chekhovian family sagas set in the odd corner of history occupied by the Allied intervention in Siberia and East Asia in the early years of the Russian Revolution. Gerhardie proves a rare writer capable of both scathing and gentle wit, enormous charm, sentences one wants to eat with a spoon, an adept diplomat’s perspective on politics and history, and a humanist’s moving views on war, love, and nutty families.
Speaking of the Far East, a journey through southern China in October prompted a re-entry into some Chinese literature. I gained a new appreciation for Nobel prize winner Gao Xinjiang’s Soul Mountain, which I’d read when it first appeared in English and not liked very much, but which now, thanks to my marginally improved understanding of China and its minority regions, seemed a far more intriguing work. I also had occasion to revisit Mo Yan’s darkly comic Shifu, You’ll Do Anything for a Laugh, and to discover that Lao She, perhaps most famous as the author of Rickshaw Boy, had also written a surprising dystopian novel, Cat Country, capable of standing shoulder to shoulder with Animal Farm or Brave New World, but with a particularly Chinese angle. I plan to read more Chinese literature this year and hope that some other bloggers may want to join in.
I succeeded in revisiting some writers I was determined to revisit: 19th century Portuguese master novelist José Maria Eça de Queiroz; the razor-sharp Caroline Blackwood; Swiss modernist Charles-Ferdinand Ramuz (whose novel Beauty on Earth has recently been translated by Michele Bailat-Jones, so you should all run out and get a copy to support her efforts to get more of this marvelous writer’s work into English); the inimitably quirky Jane Bowles; volume two of Karl Knausgaard’s epic My Struggle; another delightful César Aira novella; a new Javier Marías; Shirley Jackson’s creepy-funny The Haunting of Hill House; and another reading of Nicolai Gogol’s Dead Souls. I also returned to Jules Verne for the first time since childhood, and that’s about all I will say about that for now.
The year was also filled with a few more guilty pleasures: George Simenon’s alcohol-fueled "American" novel, Feux Rouges (a nod to Joel Dicker’s La Verité sur l’affaire Harry Quebert primarily for its sending me back to Simenon); Hugh Edward’s off-center, completely absorbing fireside tale, All Night at Mr. Stanyhurst’s, about which one might build a small, secretive cult; and above all, “folk artist” writer Amanda McKittrick Ros, whose work provoked much laughter and a grateful appreciation for the dumbfounding poetry of her wonderfully illogical sentences. I’ve been gradually making my way through her second novel, Delina Delaney, for at least six months now, and though it’s only 350 pages long, about a paragraph at a time is all I can seem to manage.
Scattered about the rest of the year were other diverse literary adventures, including a very few relative duds. However, each of those featured something worthwhile, and my only regret about my reading this year is that I didn’t read more.
Finally, I should mention the widely-reviewed final volume recounting the voyage the late Patrick Leigh Fermor took when he set out from England as a 17-year-old in 1933 and walked across Europe to Constantinople. The Broken Road, published last year nearly 80 years after the travels it relates, traces the final leg of Fermor’s journey, from the Iron Gates of the Danube to Constantinople, also containing his account of a subsequent sojourn among the monasteries of Greece’s Mount Athos. Though the book was left unfinished at Fermor’s death, his biographer Artemis Cooper and writer Colin Thubron helped to finish it, and it fulfills its promise as the culmination of one of the great travel accounts in English. Less commented upon in the many reviews of the book, The Broken Road also conveys, movingly and with great courage and grace, the writer’s forbearance with the inevitabilities associated with aging and memory.
As for the year ahead, I doubt that I’m finished wandering through the desert. But whatever the year brings, I’m certain its literary offerings will continue to provide a multitude of fertile oases. Thank you for reading.