Unopened bottle of Mumm champagne,
found and displayed by artist Jenny Odell
at the Recology Artist-in-Residence program
of the San Francisco City garbage dump.
Seraillon’s fifth year of existence, 2015, has been something like a Christmas panettone: delicious Italian (mostly Neapolitan) ingredients, but with a few domestic and exotic fruits and a very, very few rancid walnuts thrown into the mix. For another year, I’ve been awestruck by the works I’ve read; each succeeding year-end wrap-up serves to underscore how the universe of literary marvels is ever-expanding, and how my sense of getting a grip on it all seems ever-receding.
Here are a few notes from this year of reading:
Best Work Consisting of 2,279 Sonnets
The year began with the joyful discovery of the Roman sonnets of Giuseppe Gioacchino Belli, who used dialect to create, in sonnet form, a raw, ribald and not infrequently moving portrait of the Eternal City. The enthusiasm and different approaches taken by Belli’s several translators - perhaps most notably Anthony Burgess in his literary novella ABBA ABBA - helped to ramp up my own enthusiasm. Belli is a poet to read and re-read.
Best Work in which All The Characters End Up Enclosed in a Pumpkin
Going back a bit further in time, Teofilo Folengo’s Baldo may well rank as my favorite book of the year, a hugely entertaining, bawdy and inventive tale that served as a chief inspiration for Rabelais but which offers up a free-wheeling innocence unmatched by its offspring.
Five Exceptional 20th Century Italian Novels (and a Note About Four 21st Century Italian Novels)
Raffaele La Capria’s The Mortal Wound, which inspired Paolo Sorrentino’s film La Grande Bellezza, beautifully captures the paralysis of an entire generation of Neapolitans.
Guido Morselli’s “alternate history” novel Divertimento 1889 I found charming, funny, and subtly disturbing.
J. Rudolfo Wilcock’s catalogue of mostly fictional artists and dreamers in The Temple of Iconoclasts stood out by virtue of its incredibly wry humor.
Ennio Flaiano’s riveting The Short Cut, exploring an episode during Fascist Italy’s misadventure in East Africa, ranked up there with the best of Graham Greene.
Finally, a late contender, Daniele del Giudice’s surprising Lines of Light counts among the most inventive contemporary novels I’ve read in a long time, an almost plotless story concerning two men, a novel writer and a particle physicist, briefly intersecting and diverging amid love’s lines, angles and rhymes in their approaches to the exploration of knowledge.
Before leaving off the Italians, I feel obliged here to say something about Elena Ferrante’s “Neapolitan Quartet,” which I chomped down in a gulp. I intend to write about these books in early 2016, after having written around them in 2015 by noting some of Ferrante’s obvious influences.
Best Travelogue/Anti-Clerical Parody for Showing Up Gustave Flaubert
José Maria Eça de Queiroz’s The Relic proved an unexpected and utterly charming, funny and irreverent novel, one so different from his The Maias that I have trouble deciding which, between these two, is my favorite among the several of Eça’s works that I’ve now read. But I can easily say that The Relic is among my favorite works read in 2015, a novel I’m already pushing on other readers unfamiliar with this terrific writer.
Best Modern Poetry Discovery
A terrific discovery in poetry this year, thanks to a kind friend who sent along a recently translated selection – The Perfect Hour - is Portuguese poet Sophia Mello de Breyner Andresen. Here’s a book I’ve kept on the night table for frequent reading of delicate poems which prove that sometimes a limited palette is all that’s needed to create marvelous poetry. It’s a short book one can read in an hour – a perfect hour.
Probably the Best Novel Ever Set Anywhere Near Bakersfield, California
I owe thanks to Jacqui of Jacquiwine’s Journal for turning me on to Dorothy Baker’s Cassandra at The Wedding, a comic psychological novel of two sisters whose complex relationship is tested by the impending marriage of one. Why this isn’t a better-known American classic I do not know.
Best Second Visit with a Writer I’ve Wanted to Read Again
Thanks to another suggestion from Jacqui, I returned for a second time to Elizabeth Taylor, this time her novel Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont – delicate, funny, moving, among the most affecting works about aging that I can recall having read.
Best Discovery of a Writer I’d Resisted Reading Before
Arnold Bennett. I loved his Anna of the Five Towns, and quickly followed it with his delightful The Card.
Best Fulfillment of a Decades-Long Reading Project
Finally this year I succeeded in finishing a goal I started at age 17: reading all of Virginia Woolf’s novels. The Voyage Out, her first novel, was the only one remaining, and what surprises it provided! Perhaps reading everything else before reading this one was a good thing, for in The Voyage Out one sees the germs of almost everything else Woolf wrote, including the introduction of Clarissa Dalloway. The Voyage Out also possesses a liveliness and humor that seems somewhat diminished in Woolf’s later writing, and contains one of my favorite scenes from all of my reading this year, in which two of the characters, braving a storm at sea, sequester themselves in a cabin on the boat and drink champagne from a glass that's still holding a toothbrush.
Most Moving Short Novel about Approaching the End of Life
Little Songs in the Shade of Tamaara, by Egyptian writer Mohammed Afifi. A simple idea: a man catalogues everything in his garden. But through attentiveness and reminiscence he manages to recall and evaluate an entire life of tragedy and triumph as he approaches the end of it. This small, beautifully structured book resonated profoundly; would that any of us could express the feelings of facing life’s end with such courage, grace and beauty.
A Great Novel About the Sahara
New Waw is the second novel I’ve read by Taureg writer Ibrahim Al-Koni, who creates poetic gems through merging ethnography and a profound appreciation of the desert in exploring the lives of Taureg nomads.
A Bad But Entertaining Novel About The Sahara
Pierre Benoit’s L’Atlantide was a colossal success in France when it appeared in 1919. I read it in an English translation under the kitsch title Queen of Atlantis, one I found entirely appropriate to the B-film quality of this story of French explorers discovering a lost civilization in the furthest reaches of the desert (it’s Atlantis – surprise!). A hoot from start to finish.
Best Historical Fiction
This award must go to Jean-Noel Schifano’s Chroniques Napolitaines – beautifully written, filled with love affairs and violence stemming from the same addiction to passion that characterized baroque Naples.
Best Short Story Collection That Involves the Paint on the Mona Lisa’s Canvas Suddenly Deciding to Fly Off and Explore the World
To be fair, I only read a handful of short story collections this year, but César Aira’s The Musical Brain, a long-anticipated translation of the Argentine novelist’s shorter works, ranked for me among the best of the books I’ve read by Aira, with one deliriously inventive story succeeding another. The New Directions hardcover edition also gets kudos for its terrific cover.
Two Novels I Intend to Re-Read Before Writing About Them
Long on my list of novels to be read, and now read at last for the first, but surely not the last time, is Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier. I flagged so many lines on so many pages that in the end I decided I’d just have to read it again.
Effi Briest, by Theodor Fontane. I am still haunted by the Chinese figure in Fontane’s novel, as well as by the quick eclipse of youth that occurs in its opening pages. Though I read Effi Briest early this year, it has rested in my head as perhaps the novel I am most eager to re-visit.
Best Work I’m Still Reading, and Other Projects for 2016
I am thrilled to be halfway through a re-read of Don Quixote. This coming year I’ll likely still keep exploring Italian literature, but look forward to pursuing many other writers I’ve yet to discover as well as re-reading authors I want to revisit (perhaps especially Arnold Bennett and his The Old Wives’ Tale). One of the writers I intend to revisit, for the umpteenth time, is Jane Bowles and her novel Two Serious Ladies. Please see this announcement of a proposed group read with the Dolce Bellezza blog.
Finally, a huge thanks to all of you who have visited Seraillon this year and to all of you who have pointed the way to so many wonderful paths to explore in literature. I wish you a joyful and peaceful 2016 - wherever you might get your champagne.