It’s February already, almost spring, rather late for a “best of” post for 2016, and rather like cheating after a year in which I wrote scarcely a dozen posts on seraillon. But though I left little here in the way of writing, I nonetheless managed to read some 70 works, including more Italian literature, a few classics, a few should-be classics, two exceptionally rewarding group reads (of Jean Giono’s Hill and of Jane Bowles’ Two Serious Ladies), a more-than-usual number of mysteries, a few travel books, and no shortage of odds and bits, from Petronius to Dorothea Tanning, from John Aubrey to Olivia de Haviland. Here are some highlights:
Best Italian Discovery
Giuseppe Bonaviri: Nights on the Heights, Dolcissimo and Saracen Tales. Bonaviri presents a remarkably unified vision across these three books, the only ones I could find in English. This extraordinary writer’s work, firmly rooted in regional particularities, seems to ingest the most miniscule aspects of Sicilian history, culture and landscape, transforming them into strange and richly imaginative configurations such that this island crossroads of the Mediterranean appears suspended in time and space, its myriad influences, histories and natural characteristics collapsed together vertically, horizontally, and in every which way. (Many thanks to JLS for leading me to Bonaviri).
Holocaust Literature: A Balkan Contribution
The Use of Man and The Book of Blam, by Aleksander Tišma. Including these two novels as a single entry is not entirely unreasonable: both concern the fate of individuals in the Serbian city of Novi Sad during WWII. I’d never heard of Tišma before picking up The Use of Man, but his unsentimental depictions of people attempting to navigate totalitarianism from day to day impressed me so deeply that I immediately rushed to read his The Book of Blam. Tišma’s focus on the Serbo-Croatian experience makes his work unusual in the canon of Holocaust literature, as does a distinctive, recursive style, in which relationships fractured by events of the war and by the ways in which individuals rebel, adapt or submit are viewed prismatically through time. Moments of life and death thus become illuminated in sudden stark clarity, such that any rationalizations a character might make about his or her situation can evaporate in a brutal instant. This is not to say that Tišma is without warmth or humor – far from it. These clear-eyed, deeply affecting works easily merit inclusion among those of other great witnesses of the Holocaust such as Primo Levi, Vassily Grossman and Anne Frank, and share with French writer Patrick Modiano a pervasive, obsessive concern with the individual’s struggles between past and present when confronted with monstrous events.
Best Big Fat Early 20th Century English Novel I Read This Year
The Old Wives’ Tale, by Arnold Bennett. I regret that I did not push harder for a group read of this exceptional novel. While I at first found the narrative less engaging than two Bennett novels I read last year, The Old Wives’ Tale gradually and completely won me over by its daring central conceit and by the painstaking manner in which the author traces the diverging and converging lives of two sisters across the entire span of their lives, probing the question of how a person can end up as a person ends up. At turns tender, caustic, funny and furious, Bennett’s novel is both expansive and intimate, with several grandly conceived, unforgettable scenes – a book I’ll return to again, perhaps with others to read along with me.
A Massive Family Saga From the Great Plains
Beyond the Bedroom Wall, by Larry Woiwode. This may be the greatest surprise of the year. I’d never heard of Woiwode before a chance reference put me on his trail. “A Family Album,’ the subtitle of this North Dakota novelist and long-time Poet Laureate’s 1975 opus, suggests his narrative approach: snapshots that accumulate to tell the story of a family, in this case the Neumillers, German-American homesteaders who arrived in central North Dakota in the 19th century and whom Woiwode closely follows into the 1970’s. Woiwode writes of North Dakota’s near infinite flatness, simultaneously tedious and mesmerizing such that people spend long hours simply staring out at the space; of brutalizing winters and scorching summers; of the difficulties of eking out an existence from such a harsh environment; and above all of the interrelationships between the Neumiller family members and those around them. Woiwode offers a rare and profound depiction of rural, working class life and of the intricate and trying complexities of familial relationships, particularly among siblings, but also delving into subtle nuances of how marriage, economic anxiety, aging, illness and death act as bonds and wedges. He demonstrates an exceptional ability to range across an astonishing variety of subjective experiences, from describing farm chores to getting inside the head of a child with a life-threatening fever. Stylistically Woiwode seems to have ingested everyone from Flaubert to Faulkner, from Willa Cather to the experimental narrative devices of his contemporaries, such as employment of a variety of forms of texts, including diary entries and newspaper clippings. Ultimately I found the novel frustrating – a principal character’s move to Manhattan reveals Woiwode’s limitations regarding urban experience, and the book ends in a perfunctory, pat, even capitulating manner. But I found Beyond the Bedroom Wall an enthralling work, among the best fiction I’ve encountered from or about the Great Plains, among the finest portraits of a family that I’ve come across in all my reading, and a showcase for virtuoso writing.
You Wanted More Leopoldo Alas? You’ll Get More Leopoldo Alas!
His Only Son and Doña Berta, by Leopoldo Alas. I did not join a group read last summer of La Regenta, a book that made my best of list for 2014, but I was thrilled to read Alas’ only other novel, His Only Son and the accompanying short story, “Doña Berta,” which offer readers of English (thanks to translator Margaret Jull Costa) a fortunate further entrée into one of 19th century Spain’s most significant writers. Readers of La Regenta may find these two later works more subtle, tempered and intimate, less vituperative. But Alas’ knife remains sharp, and his characters unforgettable. In His Only Son Alas takes the case of a timid middle-class music lover’s attempts to stretch beyond his confining marriage and social circumstances and uses it to slice and dice the provincialism and hypocrisy of a small city and a stale marriage. In the intimate and moving “Doña Berta,” Alas turns his attention to the captivating and redemptive power of art – and to its frustration.
Most Fun Had While Laughing Then Not Laughing
Thus Bad Begins, by Javier Marias. I think I had more pure fun with Javier Marias’ new novel, Thus Bad Begins, than with any book I read this year, though the novel’s themes are anything but sunny, and the behavior of some of its characters is odious. A return to the more overtly political context of Marias’ Your Face Tomorrow trilogy, Thus Bad Begins employs the clever narrative device of plopping into the narrative an actual character, a young writer, to function in the manner normally reserved for an omniscient narrator. Through this unusually intimate insertion into the lives of a married couple with significant secrets, Marias explores the roles and moral responsibilities of the observer, simultaneously playing with the overt and clandestine vehicles for such observation, occasionally through scenes constructed with almost slapstick comedy. But the novel is also genuinely moving and weighted with the gravity of a favorite Marias motif: the residual weight of the past and of its denial on the present, both in the personal and political spheres
The Master and Margarita, by Mikhail Bulgakov. I wish I’d read this decades ago, when many of my peers were reading it, as this is the kind of book capable of turning a young person into a literature fanatic. Bulgakov entwines a delirious story of the devil wreaking havoc in Moscow with a beautifully executed retelling of Christ’s condemnation and crucifixion, while also playing hide-and-seek with disturbing themes concerning political oppression and the totalitarian surveillance state - an appropriate novel to keep one company during the ascendancy of a paranoid, law and order autocrat.
B.C.E. and C.E.
The Nature of Things, by Lucretius. I had long wanted to read Lucretius’ lengthy, poetic inquiry into the nature of phenomena. I’d also wanted to return to the stunning classicist/poet A. E. Stallings (her collection of poems, Hapax, made a prior best-of-year list). Et voilà: astonishingly, here they were together. Stallings’ translation of Lucretius takes startling liberties in updating the poem for today’s readers, explicitly linking the poet’s observations and theories to their contemporary manifestations, thus the references to genetics, particle physics, nanoscience and other current scientific pursuits. But it works beautifully, making The Nature of Things a wonder, bursting with ancient insights into natural phenomena that have been born out by modern science, yet also presented with a lyricism and wit that make the book an intoxicating delight.
Most Rewarding Re-Encounter With a Writer I’d Previously Read
Hill (Colline) and Que ma joie demeure, by Jean Giono. Hill I have reviewed, so I won’t say much here except that I am immensely grateful to my group read co-host Dorian and to the other bloggers who joined me in reading it. I also loved revisiting Giono’s Que ma joie demeure (in English translation as Joy of Man’s Desiring). Set in the same general area of rural southeastern France as Hill, Giono’s later novel is earthy, pungent, poetic, profound, radiantly alive and filled with the genuine magic and mystery of the natural world and those who depend upon it for their lives and their joy.
Some Late Tolstoy
Hadji Murat, by Leo Tolstoy. Tolstoy’s final, short novel begins and ends with its narrator’s attention fixed upon a broken Russian thistle in a plowed field, a snapshot that germinates and terminates the story of the daring Muslim revolutionary Hadji Murat in the mid-19th century Caucasus. A concentrated, beautifully structured and exquisitely nuanced portrait of dignity amid revolutionary fervor and compromise, the book is also an indignant condemnation of violence, brutality and institutional militarism. I read the Pevear/Volokhonsky edition, but plan to re-read the novel this year in a different translation.
Book I Read All The Way Through That I’d Expected Just to Skim
Italian Journey, by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. Goethe has a lot to say about Italy, but says even more about writing, drawing and painting, and the volume must certainly count among the great depictions of the growth of an artist, filled with memorable mini-essays on art and artists, writers, people, and charming Italian escapades. Tonysreadinglist also took on Italian Journey this year, as I recently discovered, so head over to his place to read about it.
Story of a Wild Hair
Journey by Moonlight, by Antal Szerb. Szerb’s melancholic/comic novel follows a confused young character who, confronted with a sudden memory, abandons his new marriage in an effort to track down his past, wandering in a picaresque labyrinth of sentimentality, erotic adventure and both self-absorption and a quest for self-realization. Though Szerb and his cast of characters are Hungarian, I relished the fact that the story takes place in various Italian settings.
I can’t leave off 2016 without mentioning Gabrielle D’Annunzio, the out-sized Italian military hero, playboy, and near ascendant to the Fascist leadership of Italy (had Mussolini not schemed to deprive him of that role). Though I’m unlikely ever be a real fan, reading my first page of D’Annunzio is an experience I’ll never forget: a completely overwhelming sense of rococo excess, of density and furious energy, a lyrical plunge into a decadent abyss. I read a collection of short stories (Nocturne and Five Tales of Love and Death), with plots simple and cruel; a good number of poems; and the first English translation (2013) of Pleasure to have kept D’Annunzio’s prurience intact - though I abandoned the novel half-way through despite an initial compulsion to want to recite the first pages aloud to anyone who would listen. As with most things decadently rich, one can take only so much at a time. But I’m glad to have had this introduction. D’Annunzio is an incontrovertible fact of 20th century Italian literature, a tremendous stylist well worth confronting at some time or another – even if Italian Neo-Realism now seems at least in part an attempt at flight from what D’Annunzio (over)wrought.
M Train. I grew up admiring Smith’s music and assumed that her book would focus on her musical career. But this is not a musician’s autobiography. Smith barely mentions her music, aside from the scattered singing she does to birds, objects, and the occasional lecture audience. Instead, M Train, narratively “moving backwards and forwards in time,” focuses tightly and intimately on the mind of the artist, her daily life, visions, dreams, travels, efforts to write, all punctuated by a daily compulsion to find good coffee and pay homage to her pantheon of heroes, usually through visiting and photographing talismanic objects. Smith’s attention to those who’ve gone before serves as the bass line to an overarching theme: a powerful gesture of remembrance of her late husband Fred, which makes M Train a moving testimony of loss, survival and memorial. The book itself ended up feeling like a talisman I wanted to carry around.
Thank you to all who visited seraillon in 2016. I wish all of you a happy, healthy, peaceful and defiant 2017, and, now that most of the challenges of the past six months appear to be behind me, I hope to see you with more frequency.