A Year in Reading: David Bezmozgis

In a year where it seemed like much of the conversation was about very long books — I’m thinking particularly about the series of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s novels — my favourite book was a very short one. In fact, the book has something in common with the Knausgaard books, in that it too is a sort of memoir cum novel. The book is William Maxwell’s So Long, See You Tomorrow. I was in San Francisco on my desultory book tour when it was recommended to me by a friend. Knocking around the city with little to do, I went into City Lights Books and asked for it. They had a single copy, still in print as a Vintage paperback, 135 pages. I knew very little about Maxwell before this and hadn’t read anything else by him, but, after I’d read the book and was still in its thrall, I discovered that friends whose literary taste I respect knew it well, and remembered certain passages from the book with remarkable fidelity. It is that kind of book. Published when Maxwell was in his 70s, it bears on every page the mark of experience, wisdom, and a gentle humility — the consequence of the many mysteries and regrets that comprise a man’s life. At the heart of the book is a murder, a crime of passion committed in a rural Illinois community in the 1920s. Maxwell, a boy at the time, had only a glancing connection to the event, in that he was acquainted with the murderer’s son. But the event haunts him, largely because of a seemingly trivial act of cruelty — barely perceptible — that he visited upon this other boy. Tormented by the memory, Maxwell reimagines the events in the minutest detail, recalling not only his own boyhood self but inhabiting every character related to the murder — including, famously, a dog. That he is able to realize this in only 135 pages, sacrificing no depth for brevity, is a extraordinary achievement. I recommend the novel for this, and also for its prose — in a class with George Orwell’s — each sentence honed for honesty and clarity. It is an exemplary book, well-deserving of its high reputation. I’m sure I’ll return to it again, as I do to a number of other short novels that have staked their claim on me: Cees Nooteboom’s Rituals, Leonard Michaels’s Sylvia and Philip Roth’s The Ghost Writer.

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A Year in Reading: David Bezmozgis

When I think back on this year, two particular books come to mind. The first I read in the spring, Hervé Le Tellier’s Enough About Love. It’s a self-consciously French novel, I suppose, in that it is explicitly self-conscious and in that it deals with affairs of the heart involving, among others, two Parisian psychoanalysts and a writer who bears a resemblance to Le Tellier. I admire books that can convincingly describe the twists and turns of romance. Le Tellier does so with deceptive ease. He tells the story from multiple perspectives — male and female — and moves the action along with intelligence and wit. He also plays something of a formal game with the novel’s structure, a game that he reveals near the end of the novel. But even if you don’t care particularly about the sort of narrative game Le Tellier plays, you can still be taken in by the novel and wonder how Le Tellier will bring everything to its conclusion — which he does in a satisfying and unsentimental way.

The other book, Denis Johnson’s novella Train Dreams, I read on the train from Boston to New York. It was just long enough for the ride. Well, it was a little shorter than the ride, but I reread some passages more than once. You don’t need to read the book on a train, but it certainly doesn’t hurt. Johnson is one of my favorite living American writers. I’ve reread his collection Jesus’ Son: Stories countless times and still occasionally think about certain creepy scenes from his fist novel, Angels. In Train Dreams, Johnson manages again to construct a world that feels like it’s part dream, part reality. Reading the book, Johnson convinces you that this is the actual state of the world, and that your belief in or insistence upon the world as a rational place is illusory. I suppose I should mention that the book takes place in the first half of the 20th century and is set, to a great extent, in the lumber camps of the Pacific Northwest. Johnson’s grip on the details and the terminology of lumbering is impressive. So too is the vividness and earthiness of his language. And also its concise and epigrammatic quality. “It was only when you left it alone that a tree might treat you as a friend. After the blade bit in, you had yourself a war.” The novella is 116 pages, but it is as rich, moving, and ambitious as any novel I read this year — and, because it is so compact, more powerful for it.

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The motherlode: The Millions’ Books and Reviews

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