The most extraordinary book I read this year is Richard Hughes’ A High Wind in Jamaica, originally published in 1929. A peculiar fantasia on the nearly impenetrable and certainly alien world of childhood, the novel is at once highly lyrical and poetic fable and an implicit critique of pat moral systems and the blindnesses of colonialism. It functions almost as a trompe l’oeil, inviting you to see the landscape around you one way, then another. In his excavations of the subterranean shifts in perspective that are so much of anyone’s childhood, Hughes also reminds us of the virtues of whimsy: One of the best passages consists of the author’s attempt to differentiate the inner life of a baby from the inner life of a child – and involves a fabulous encounter with an octopus. What isn’t here is the explanatory language of psychology; what is here is an eccentric vision of humanity so particularized as to be really convincing – almost a Lord of the Flies for grown-ups who didn’t like the original all that much.
Marguerite Donnadieu, known as the writer and filmmaker Marguerite Duras, was 70 years old in 1984 when her autobiographical novel L’Amant (The Lover) won France’s prestigious Prix Goncourt. (The popular film version, written and directed by Jean-Jacques Annaud, was released in 1992.) Duras was a sort of writers’ writer in France, and her 1960 film script of Alain Resnais's Hiroshima Mon Amour had become a cult classic, but it wasn't until The Lover that she became internationally acclaimed. Prior to The Lover, Duras authored some 30 works of fiction (her first novel, Les Impudents, was published in 1943 when she was 29 years old), directed 18 films, and wrote screenplays, plays, journalism, and essays. She is typically associated with the nouveau roman -- a post-World War II approach to fiction developed and practiced most notably by Alain Robbe-Grillet, Nathalie Sarraute, Claude Simon, and Michel Butor -- whose signature features Fernanda Eberstadt described in The New Criterion as such: ...addressed to the reader in the second person singular ...in the present tense; what action there is transpires in cinematic, non-chronological quick-takes; the thought, often tinged with Marxist ideology, tends toward an inscrutable abstraction, a tricky relativism, a fretwork of paradox, in which life is found to be a death sentence, or silence a more telling form of speech... the deliberate banality of tone and obliqueness of narrative are used to describe bloodcurdling violence and extremes of sexuality….the nouveau roman -- which has been called by some the “anti-novel” -- served after the War as an eminently appropriate literary form for a demoralized nation. Duras’s vision was indeed dark, and tragic. She was interested in the inextricability of eroticism and death. Her best-known works -- The Lover (and its follow-up The North China Lover), The Ravishing of Lol Stein, Hiroshima Mon Amour, and Moderato Cantabile -- explore passion in the extreme, its origins in madness and violence, and its ultimate unsustainability. In an earlier short novel, Ten-thirty on a Summer Night (1960), for example, the alcoholic protagonist Maria becomes obsessed with a murderer-on-the-run while vacationing in Spain with her husband and his (eventual) mistress. Maria fantasizes about harboring and carrying on an affair with the murderer (whose victims were his wife and her lover), only to be deeply disappointed when he commits suicide. In Moderato Cantabile, the violent murder of a woman by her husband prompts another woman near the scene, who is also married, to take up with a stranger in a café. When asked by Leslie Garis in a NY Times interview about the allure of the criminal, Duras responded, "It exerts a fascination for me -- all the people who abandon the golden rule of good conduct. Criminals are heroes for me.” That Duras would even mention “the golden rule of good conduct” might surprise her readers: both her life and her work are made of such drastically different stuff from anything polite society might encounter, let alone comprehend or embrace. She was born and spent her childhood in French Indochina, raised by her widowed mother, nearly destitute; Marguerite and her siblings roamed more or less freely. At age 15, she carried on an intense love affair with a 27 year-old Chinese man (the story of both The Lover and The North China Lover). She passionately loved her younger brother Paolo, who was mentally challenged, and consummated that passion sexually. She was a member of the Communist party and participant in the French resistance; a sometimes outrageous social commentator; and a serious alcoholic for much of her adult life. I came to Duras as many Americans do -- through Hiroshima Mon Amour and The Lover. All that darkness, tragedy, and indelicate conduct is, unsurprisingly, both captivating and exhausting. In these works, it is as if all was lost well before the dawn of humankind, and what remains is only to languish, albeit gorgeously (especially when it’s Jeanne Moreau or Emmanuelle Riva in the film version) and with a kind of sacred devotion. I love Duras for the sumptuous beauty she knew to be inherent in the starkest of suffering; but the Durasian experience I encountered and became enamored of this year is an atypical one, pre-Duras in extremis: the 1955 short novel The Square. In 56 pages, a young woman and an older man, both poor and alone, meet on a park bench in a Square and do little more than talk. The woman is a maid to a wealthy family, and she has come to the park with the little boy in her charge. The boy announces to his young caretaker, who we learn is 20 years-young, that he is hungry. Duras’s objective narrator then informs us, “The man took this as an opportunity to start a conversation.” And off we go. What do they talk about? Well, everything. The girl is isolated, and miserably overworked; as the two begin to talk about their lives, she declares that she is “full of hope,” waiting for a change, that change being only one possibility, and that is marriage. “One day someone must choose me,” she says. “Then I will be able to change.” The man, a travelling salesman, begins to tell her that he is beyond the possibility of change and doesn’t either imagine or hope for it: at first he says that marriage couldn’t possibly bring him the sort of change that she imagines for herself, but then it becomes clear that what he really means is that any sort of change is impossible for him. You will change but I don’t think I will, or rather I don’t think so anymore. And whichever way you look at it there is nothing to be done about it...I mean a life can begin anyhow—a fact we do not appreciate enough. And then time passes and we discover that life has very few solutions: and things become established until one fine day we find that they are so established that the very idea of changing them seems absurd. As with all original and arresting fiction, it is difficult to accurately describe the experience of their exchange; one simply must read it. Duras has rendered the conversation directly, providing little narration or stage direction, and no interior exposition at all. In other words, the characters develop solely through their spoken words, and the reader both apprehends and feels the “happening” of the encounter through speech and speech alone. It’s a style she became known for -- long dialogue scenes with little commentary --but The Square exemplifies this form even more strictly than later works like Moderato Cantabile and Ten-Thirty on a Summer Night. What’s also distinct about this early work is that these characters do have a sense of “good conduct” -- each is genuinely curious about the other’s feelings of hope and hopelessness, their contrasting experiences of despair and survival. Repeatedly each apologizes for mis-expressing his or her own station, or mis-apprehending the other’s; and each kindly, but desperately, attempts to nudge the other toward a different way of living and seeing, while at the same time recognizing the presumptuousness of doing so: “I wanted to say...that I would be very unhappy if you thought, even for an instant, that I was trying to influence you in any way.” We feel, gradually, and then acutely, the stakes that these lone souls develop in each others’ transformation: the man somehow needs for the young woman to change her stance on the necessary misery of her housework, and also on her resistance to travel, and change, and independence; the woman is desperate for the man to believe in the possibility of change in his own life, frightened by his apparent apathy and resolve: “But you, what will happen to you?...Something will happen to you or else it will only be because you don’t want anything to happen.” What’s revelatory as we journey through their conversation is how clear and muddled at once is the human necessity for both generosity and self-preservation: in their encouragements, urgings, and questioning, each reveals simultaneously how terrified she is to have her own worldview, her very survival strategy, shaken; and how gradually is his isolation beginning to open up toward something like hope -- genuine, terrifying hope for someone else’s fate, and by extension one’s own, which, in the world of The Square, is the essence of love. Some critique Durasian dialogue as wooden, and her characters as more representational than human (contra the lovable messy-ness of two other talky-talks that may come to mind, i.e. Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy). The “flatness” of speech is indeed a trait of the nouveau roman, a re-fashioning of human beings as abstractions -- as talking heads, disembodied and uninflected. The act of talk itself becomes a subject of both the dialogue and the novel -- talk as loneliness’s antidote, and then as its cause: “Time seems shorter when one is talking,” said the girl. “And then afterwards, suddenly, much longer.” When stylized dialogue draws too much attention to itself, self-congratulatory in its coolness and minimalism (Brad Pitt hocking Chanel No. 5), it’s irritating, it puts one off. There are other scenes in Duras’s oeuvre that have struck me this way. But in The Square, the characters express the real thing; they are humanity stripped down to profound simplicity. In this reader’s experience, it is Duras’s great accomplishment that, by the end of The Square, I am convinced that these two minds and souls are not only fully real, but that they are me. More from A Year in Reading 2013 Don't miss: A Year in Reading 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005 The good stuff: The Millions' Notable articles The motherlode: The Millions' Books and Reviews Like what you see? Learn about 5 insanely easy ways to Support The Millions, and follow The Millions on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr.
We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler: I thought this was a gripping, big-hearted book about a family’s falling apart after a young daughter is sent away. Who – or what – the young daughter is can’t be discussed without revealing a major spoiler, suffice it to say it is a whopper. The book is far deeper and more ambitious, however, than its central conceit would lead one to think. Through the tender voice of her protagonist, Fowler has a lot to say about family, memory, language, science, and indeed the question of what constitutes a human being. More from A Year in Reading 2013 Don't miss: A Year in Reading 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005 The good stuff: The Millions' Notable articles The motherlode: The Millions' Books and Reviews Like what you see? Learn about 5 insanely easy ways to Support The Millions, and follow The Millions on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr.
Hugo Hamilton is the author of the New York Times notable memoir The Speckled People and its sequel The Harbor Boys. His most recent book is the novel Disguise. He has been awarded the Rooney Prize for Irish Literature, France's Prix Femina Etranger, and Italy's Giuseppe Berto Prize. He lives in Dublin.It's always fascinated me how history is used in order to accommodate the present. For years we heard the maoning in Ireland about Eamon De Valera - freedom fighter, treaty-opponent, head of state in the fledgling Irish state whose vision of the Irish future was derided for so many years after his death as a home-spun mess. At last, we have a biography of the man which gives a deeper understanding of his character and his time. Judging DEV by Diarmuid Ferriter examines history from a new perspective, with a touch of sociological instinct at the core of his thinking.The Shores of Connemara by Seamas Mac an Iomaire (translated by Padraic de Bhaldraithe) Imagine Darwin arriving on the shores of Connemara. This small account of a local fisherman off the coast of Connemara, places us back in time almost a hundred years to a vision of the sea and the land in an innocent state. It is seen not by a professional marine biologist or botanist, but a local expert who observes everything he sees with great curiosity. In his descriptions of sandhoppers, for instance, and why they hop on a fine evening, is always a mixture of scientific enquiry, folklore, religion and childish delight. His book, above all, reduces the pace of change and gathers up all the qualities of time, the absence of hurry, in the landscape of the west of Ireland.More from A Year in Reading 2008
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Elizabeth McCracken is currently a fellow at the Radcliffe Center for Advanced Study. Her most recent book is An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination.I read plenty of terrific books this year, but two stick out in my head:For some reason it took me 100 approaches to The Maytrees before I finally got off the first page; now I can say that it's one of my favorite books of all time. (About 20 years ago, I had the same exact experience with Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson.) The Maytrees is not about much, but at the same time it's about everything: domestic love, parental love, human beings in houses, houses in the natural world, the passage of time, memory, illness, drink, death, art. I don't want to summarize the book because it defies summarization, and because one of the pleasures of the book is how surprisingly it's shaped on every level, phrase to sentence to chapter. I'm not selling it very well, I'm afraid. Let me add: the book is about a group of people who meet in Provincetown after the War, and that Annie Dillard accomplishes that rare thing: portraits of genuinely eccentric people who are not sweet, or picturesque, or naive savants, but weighty, complicated human beings.I just finished Red House: Being a Mostly Accurate Account of New England's Oldest Continuously Lived-in House, by Sarah Messer. Full disclosure: I know Sarah. I'd met her before this fall, but this year we have offices in the same building and I started the book out of politeness and with that usual fear: what if I don't like the book as much as I like the person? Oh my heavens I loved this book. Red House, like The Maytrees, also defies description - part memoir, part history, written by a poet and fiction writer, built in some places out of old documents, Red House is the story of a 17th century house in Marshfield, Massachusetts, the family who built it and lived there till the 1960s, and the author's family, who bought the house from the builder's descendents. It's about loving the myths of the place you live, and the siren pull of impractical architecture. The book itself feels like the house, rooms added onto rooms, fascinating objects and observations pulled out of walls, layers of history and wallpaper and quotidian ghosts. it's a book that feels as weighty as an artifact, and as beautiful as life. It's also just exceptionally smart.More from A Year in Reading 2008
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