Early in the year, an editor’s comment on an essay draft sent me back to Émile Zola, whom I hadn’t read since graduate school. And I think even then I only read one novel, L’Assommoir, which somehow didn’t make an overwhelming impression. It made one now, and I spent the first couple of months of 2017 reading novel after novel, in a state of real amazement. Zola is an uneven writer, sometimes careless, and he’s a deeply uncongenial writer for me in the attitude of knowingness he takes toward his characters, his sense that contemporary theories of human behavior adequately explain human beings, without any remainder of mystery. This sense of knowingness results, often enough, in an impression of authorial contempt. In his determination to show the social rot in France’s Second Empire, his plots follow the same monotonous course from bad to worse to devastated.
And yet. At his best, Zola gets more reality into his books than any other writer I can think of, and this fidelity to the real—to how laundry is washed and beaten and dried, to how a horse is lowered into a mine—his meticulous, obsessive need to get things right, makes the books absolutely thrilling. And even if his theories deny human mystery, his characters, at least at the books’ finest moments, reclaim it. Nana regarding herself in the mirror, purring like a cat; the anarchist Souvarine stroking a rabbit on his lap; la Mouquette mooning the houses of the rich: these are moments of pure literature, I think, that wondrous excess of behavior and feeling that swamps reductive theory. I was pulled away from Zola, after seven or eight novels, to other projects; I’m itching to get back.
Toward the end of the year, a stray reference in Maggie Nelson’s fascinating The Art of Cruelty finally sent me to a book several friends had enthused about over the years: T.J. Clark’s The Sight of Death. All of my training in the arts has been musical and literary; I’ve always been (I remain) embarrassed of my ignorance regarding visual art, to which my response is sometimes powerful but never informed. The Sight of Death is a remarkable demonstration of what an exquisitely informed eye can see. Over the course of months, during a residency at the Getty museum in L.A., Clark studies two huge landscapes by Nicolas Poussin—studying them not in his usual scholarly, historically-informed way, but simply by looking. This book is the record of what he sees. The gamble of the project is that something about great art really is inexhaustible: that we can return to a great poem or painting or sonata again and again, always finding ourselves newly challenged. The gamble pays off here, and the gorgeous and generous illustrations allow us to participate in Clark’s looking, to see some shadow of what he sees. Seldom have I been more grateful to a book.
Among new books: Frank Bidart’s Half-Light, which collects 50 years of poetry, is for me the book not just of the year but of the decade. Yiyun Li’s devastating, consoling Dear Friend, from My Life I Write to You in Your Life is among the most profound books I’ve ever read about the relationship between life and reading. And finally, two novels that I read in 2017 but that are coming out in 2018: First, Jamie Quatro’s Fire Sermon, out in January, is the best new novel I’ve read in a very long time, a gorgeous and profound interrogation of fidelity of all kinds. And Fatima Farheen Mirza’s A Place for Us, out in June, is far too wise to be a debut novel; I’m not sure I know another book that measures so exactly and compassionately the lines of resentment and love that stitch together a family.
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