In early 2016, during a monthslong relocation to Barcelona, I fell under the spell of three contemporary masters of Spanish-language fiction: Javier Cercas, of Barcelona, Javier Marías, of Madrid, and Álvaro Enrigue, of Mexico and New York. Even now, back in the U.S., I feel with these writers the special connection you get when your reading life and your life-life come close enough to touch. And over the last couple years, I've managed to track each of them down for an interview. The first piece in this series featured Cercas and the second Enrigue; the finale, though the first of them chronologically, features Marías. The internationally bestselling author of novels including A Heart So White, The Infatuations, and the trilogy Your Face Tomorrow, Javier Marías has often been called "Spain's living greatest writer." His new collection of essays, Between Eternities, is his first to appear in English in a quarter century and features meditations on lederhosen, soccer, Joseph Conrad, and "Why Almost No One Can Be Trusted." I sat down with him at the 92nd Street Y in late 2016 to discuss his "literary thinking" on the occasion of his novel Thus Bad Begins (video of the event can be found at 92y.org). What follows is a slightly condensed version of that discussion. The Millions: I read an interview where you talked—I’m not sure how facetiously—about writing novels for the purpose of including a few paragraphs or sentences that wouldn’t stand up on their own ... where the novel is a sort of arch to hold up this one capstone. The example you gave in the interview was Tomorrow in the Battle, Think on Me. I’m wondering if there is similarly a core passage or image or set of paragraphs or images in Thus Bad Begins that you felt yourself writing around or toward ... or that you began with. Javier Marías: Well, if there is, I won’t say which one! But what I meant then, and maybe it’s true sometimes, is that most novelists … or, that would be presumptuous on my part, at least the kind of novelist I am, and maybe others too, often think (of course, you’re never able to judge what you do) that there are a few paragraphs or a couple of pages that are better than the rest. In my case, I usually think—and I may be mistaken, of course—of some paragraphs which are slightly lyrical, or they contain a digression or a reflection or a short meditation, maybe it’s even half a page or something, sometimes a little more ... and you are rather satisfied with that. You say, "This is the gist." The gist of the novel? You can say that? TM: I think so. I think you can say that: the gist. JM: I mean that when the novel is more or less finished, there is sometimes the thought, “Well, now I realize”—at least, in my case; I’m speaking always for myself, obviously—“that because of these paragraphs, I wrote this novel. Because of this couple of pages, for instance. I realize that now.” And then sometimes you think—because I’m not a poet, I don’t write poetry, never wrote poetry, not even when I was a young man or a teenager—you say, “But I had to surround this with something else, with something huge, with an architecture to hold it, to make it acceptable. What I want is the reader mainly to look at these pages, but I have to distract him or her with stories, plots, dialogues—” TM: All that stuff. JM: All that stuff. But that is something you realize when you finish the novel—it’s not something that you have in your mind previously. TM: I see. So you’re speaking of those paragraphs for which you realize, in the end, “All along I was moving toward this …” JM: In a way, yes. But it’s not a premeditated thing to do. That would be ... vile, I suppose. But sometimes you say [later], well, yeah, the justification for this whole thing is these two pages. TM: You you spoke of plot and character and “all that stuff” … and I wanted to talk about one of those things, one of those novelistic things that keeps readers reading, which is the degree—especially in your novels—the degree of suspense generated. Often when I’m reading you, even before I know what the question is, I feel myself waiting to get to the answer. I remember reading The Infatuations, the moment when Maria is going to the door to eavesdrop, and I was reading as though I were in a movie theater, covering my eyes. You know, “Don’t go to that door!” I’m wondering how cognizant you are of the pulse of suspense as you’re writing—whether this is something that just comes very naturally to you, or whether it’s an epiphenomenon of your style, or whether you actually do a lot of editing and revising—of scheming. JM: Oh, no, not really. My method for writing is a very suicidal one. TM: All methods for writing are suicidal ones. JM: Probably, but you feel more suicidal over the one you chose. Or the one that chose you ... You know, one of the problems with novelists is that we never learn the job. We never learn it! I mean in the sense that other people do. A professor goes to give his lesson after 40 years—as is my case; I published my first novel when I was 19, which was over 40 years ago—and the teacher knows he will give a good lesson, or at least a decent one. And he will do it with ease. And the carpenter who’s been making tables for 40 years or whatever knows he will succeed with the next table. But a novelist doesn’t know that at all! TM: Do you have a moment where you sit down to write the next book and you think you must have learned something last time? JM: No, no, you learn you haven’t learned anything! And even if some of the previous books have been praised, and people have enjoyed them and all that, not even that is reassuring, in my case, because it’s “Oh, well, yeah, I was lucky with that one.” Or “People were misled!” Or something. But that doesn’t guarantee anything for this one that I’m starting now. But what I was going to say is that my usual way ... Well, as I’ve said on many occasions, there are of course all kinds of writers, but ... There are some who write with a map, as it were. That is, they know exactly ... or with a chart. [millions_ad] TM: I hate those people. I don’t understand them at all. JM: No, no … why should you hate them? I mean, all methods depend on the result … But before they start a novel, they have the full story in their mind, they know exactly what’s going to happen to every character, and when, et cetera, et cetera, which is certainly not my case. I think that if I knew a complete story before I started writing a novel, I wouldn’t write it, because I’d say, “What a bore!” I like to find out as I write. I’ve mentioned on many occasions before that the word “invent,” which is the same in English and Spanish and many other languages, “inventar” in Spanish, comes from Latin, “invenire." And “invenire” originally, in Latin, meant to find out, to discover. And so to invent—in our sense, in English or in Spanish—has to do, etymologically at least, with the idea of finding out—which is what I like to do. I start writing with a compass. I don’t have a map. I just have a compass. So I’m heading north, as it were. I know more or less where I would like to go, but I don’t know the way, not at all. And I don’t even know whether I shall find a desert in the middle or a cliff, or a river, or a jungle, or what. I must cross them as I find them. Whereas the one with a map knows that he will find the jungle and the desert and the cliff—but he knows beforehand, and he knows very well when and how. And then the thing is that I don’t know exactly how I do my novels. Every time, I realize I don’t know how a novel is written. I don’t know how other people write them, and in fact, I don’t know how I write them myself. All of a sudden you happen to have 300 or 400 or even 500 pages, and say, “Oh. This looks like a novel.” But I work page by page. I never make a draft of five or 10 pages in a row. Never. I make one page, I work on that—I still use a typewriter—and then I take out the piece of paper and I make corrections by hand and erase things, add arrows and suppressions and additions and everything. Then I retype it again, once, twice, three times, four times—five times, sometimes—until I think, “Well, I can’t do it better than this.” Or “I’m tired,” which is also possible. And then that page generally goes to the printer like that. One page after another. And I never reread the whole thing until the novel is finished. Because I’ve been saying, “Oh, come on. I have 200 pages now. Shall I reread them? What if I found them awful? Now the whole thing would be ruined. And I wouldn’t have the faith to go on.” So I won’t read them. And just one by one, one by one, each as if it were the only one, I concentrate on that one page, I do it as best I can, but it has no real relationship to the next one or to the previous one, so to me it is rather mysterious that in the end, as some readers, very kind readers, have told me—some of them even say, “I couldn’t put it down”—“Your novels are so seamless!” And I say, “Oh, dear me, it’s exactly the opposite.” TM: I think the reason I said I hate the map people is that I have this idea that the map people aren’t suicidal. And that it’s the compass people who are going, I have no idea how to— JM: No, they are [suicidal], too. TM: OK. Well, that’s reassuring. JM: No, they are, too, because there is one thing that plays against them, I think. Which is, because of their knowing exactly what’s going to happen throughout the novel, or what suspense they will need at a given moment, they are more predictable. And sometimes they don’t realize that, because they already know the ending, the reader can get the ending much easier than in the novels of the writers with only a compass, who have improvised, who didn’t know the ending, even 30 pages from the end. I remember I wrote a short novel in 1986, in which I was 30 pages from the end and didn’t even know who was going to die, or if anyone was going to die. And I had to decide: “Shall I make him die?” Now it seems impossible that someone else would die instead of the one who did die, but of course, a long time has elapsed … And by the way, if you’ll allow me, I think it’s worth talking [more] about that. I think it’s one of the reasons why we still write and read fiction … I wrote a few years ago a speech that was on telling, and what I said was that telling is very difficult, and that telling actual things is almost impossible—for a historian, for instance. A historian tells facts, as much as he knows about them, but some other historian may come along and contradict him or her, and say, “No, no, no, you’re not right.” Or say, for instance, “We have just discovered a bunch of letters from Napoleon, and that makes the story completely different …” Even when we tell something that we just witnessed, an incident that happened this morning on the way to our job, on the subway, for instance … and you say, “Well, I saw this man striking that other man,” and you start telling something very simple, and then if someone else is with you who witnessed the scene, they say, “Wait a minute, you came late to the scene, because what you didn’t see, I saw. I had a better angle. It’s that the beaten man provoked the other one,” and so on. So nothing is very certain …Telling with words is very difficult. Everything can be denied, everything can be contradicted. And I think that one of the reasons we write and read novels is that in a way we need something, even if it’s fictional, even if it never did happen, to be told once and for good, once and forever. And the only thing that no one can contradict or deny is fiction. I mean, Madame Bovary died the way she did. And no one can come and say, “Oh, I disagree. She didn’t die.” Or “She stabbed herself.” TM: “She faked her death.” JM: No one can say that. So Madame Bovary did die, died the way Flaubert decided, and that’s the end of it! No one can contradict it. And even if it’s fiction, even if she didn’t really exist, we need the security, or the comfort, of something told for sure, once and for all. And something not told forever, as well—for you must have in mind that what is not told in a novel shall never be told by anyone … What is told is told forever, what is not told shall never be. No? TM: No, this sounds plausible to me. It’s like: The only thing we can believe in is what’s completely made up. JM: Yes. But at least we have a full story, you know? TM: And your father was a philosopher, is that right? JM: Ortega y Gasset’s main disciple, yes. TM: And so I wanted to ask you finally: There’s almost a philosophical world in which your fiction takes place, preoccupations with eternity, and infinity, and variation and the impossibility of variation, with, you know, what’s about to happen, what can never happen, everything has already happened. Have you been thinking about these things more or less your whole life, or was there a moment in your writing life where you thought, a-ha! “This should come into my work.” JM: I don’t think my novels are philosophical at all, precisely because my father was a philosopher and I know … that there is a huge difference between what a novelist can do and what a philosopher does, to begin with. What I do, I think, is a different thing, and I’m not the only one to do it—in the past, many of us did it—which is what you might call, and what I have called often, literary thinking. Which has nothing to do with thinking about literature, that would be boring, it’s thinking literarily of things. I mean, you have all kinds of thinking, religious thinking, scientifical thinking, philosophical thinking, of course, psychoanalytic, whatever …all kinds of thinking. There is a literary way of thinking, as well. And it has some advantages, in comparison with philosophy, for instance. One of those things is when you all of a sudden say something in a novel that the reader recognizes as something truthful … I’ve often used the word “recognition” for novels. I think one of the things that moves me most as a reader is when I find a scene or a meditation or an observation in a novel and I recognize it and say, “Yes, yes, this is true. I have experienced this, but I didn’t know that I knew it, until I’ve seen it said by Proust.” Of course, he’s the master of that, or Shakespeare, as well. And then, [in a novel] you can say these things in a very arbitrary way. They are like flashes. Whereas philosophers—or at least the old philosophers—need to demonstrate the principle, need to demonstrate step by step what a novelist doesn’t. On the contrary, a novelist just throws something, throws a true sentence, or a true observation. Someone who reads it may feel it’s true precisely because he recognizes something he didn’t know he knew. But he recognizes it and says, “I’ve experienced that.” And I think that’s quite a different thing. To answer your question, it’s not something that I already decided, “Oh, this could be useful for my novels.” No, I don’t look for subjects for my novels. For the last 30 years, I usually write on the same things that concern me in my life. And the things that make me think. And some of them are, for instance, secrecy, treason, friendship, betrayal … the impossibility of knowing anything for certain.
In early 2016, during a monthslong relocation to Barcelona, I fell under the spell of three contemporary masters of Spanish-language fiction: Javier Cercas, of Barcelona, Javier Marías, of Madrid, and Álvaro Enrigue, of Mexico and New York. Even now, back in the U.S., I feel with these writers the special connection you get when your reading life and your life-life come close enough to touch. And over the last couple years, I've managed to track each of them down for an interview. The first in this series was with Cercas; the third will be with Marías. But the middle panel of the triptych is Álvaro Enrigue. His internationally acclaimed novel Sudden Death is a dazzling synthesis of fact and fiction in which a single tennis match ties together the fate of indigenous Mexico and the cultural revolutions shaking Europe at the time of the Conquest. Enrigue is also a scholar and the author of Hypothermia. I sat down to talk to him at a packed Greenlight Bookstore in 2017, on the occasion of Sudden Death's paperback release. (The audio can be found at Greenlight's website.) What follows is a lightly edited version of our discussion. The Millions: Your novel, for all that it’s about a tennis match between Caravaggio and Quevedo, is also about exile and empire and vagabondage and translation, and of course, Mexico. So to start with, I’m wondering if you had any initial reflections you wanted to offer on immigration, cultural exchange, or Mexico itself at this particular moment in U.S. history, for which your book seems so suited … Álvaro Enrigue: It’s interesting, because the seeds of this ugly thing that we’re seeing now were planted precisely when I was writing the novel, which were the years just immediately posterior to the crisis of 2008. I think it is obvious in the novel that I was really, like, politically angry at the time. It was the moment in which Northern Europe had begun to articulate this awful discourse about Southern Europe … as if England or Germany or Denmark could be anything without Greece, without Italy, without Spain, without the freaking South of France, without the material of Mediterranean culture. Like, what would be of the European culture without that nuts Roman citizen who was St. Paul? What would be of Europe without tomatoes, which are Mexican? Without chocolate, which is Mexican? Without pasta, which is, quote “Italian,” which these Chinese Italians eat, before people begin to move around the world? TM: You’d have a bunch of white guys in helmets just banging into each other. AE: So this idea of calling the Mediterranean countries that can be considered the birthplace of whatever we have of culture … the idea of calling that accumulation of countries thieves just drove me crazy. But now [in 2017] I can see that my indignation [of 2008] was really cute. [Laughter.] Because subsequently we saw the stadiums, you know: "[Who's going to pay for the wall?] Mexico!" It’s millions of guys that pee and poo and eat like me, shouting the name of my country, Mexico, as if I were stalking their children. Now I’m used to it, because one gets used to things, you know? But when it began to happen, we would turn off the TV at home so the children couldn’t see. So … TM: This is so interesting to me— AE: I don’t know if I have a posture; postures are for politicians— TM: Postures don’t make for good conversation. But something you said that I hadn’t thought about is that while you were starting this book, you happened to find yourself in a place of political anger … and I mean, I remember writing in 2008, feeling this same sort of sense of political rage, and thinking there could be a connection between fictional history and present-day fact, like, somehow, oh, I know, I can talk about 2008 via the ’70s, 1977. And then I go flipping back through your book today, and you have a moment where Quevedo sort of bids goodbye to the Apollonian side of himself, and it’s like he embraces the dark half of himself where everything is bad, and one of the things you say is, he’s a nationalist, misogynist, homophobe— AE: He became a monster. TM: And I’m wondering if in some way you were writing, you know, the present moment in 2008, and also seeing its roots in the 16th century. AE: Well, very obviously, you know? Not that it’s obvious in the novel or anything, but these ideas come from ... well, that may sound too much like a seminar, which I don’t mean it to become by any means—but the first globalization happens precisely in that moment [in the 16th century]. What stood between Europe and China was Mexico City, Tenochititlán, What would make world commerce possible was the fall of Tenochtitlán. Because to cross through the south of Africa was incredibly dangerous, no? Once you passed the Canary Islands, that part of the Atlantic becomes tremendously difficult— TM: And there are dragons, I think— AE: Well, people remember that Magellan was eaten, you know? Like, the first guy who circled the world died, eaten by people. So it was not easy. [Laughs.] It was not an easy world. In a moment when Christopher Columbus was completely crazy, in the letters to Queen Isabel of Spain, he says that the purpose of crossing the Atlantic is to reconquer Jerusalem. Which is fascinating. "If we go the other way around," he thinks, "and we cross this little thing, which is China—" TM: "We’ll sneak up on them from behind." AE: Yeah, yeah, "We arrive from behind and surprise them!" [Laughter.] But there happened to be a little mass of land there. Anyway, when [the Europeans] stand in front of the Americas, they discovered that maybe they could really make it to China that way. Of course, no one was thinking about Jerusalem—except Christopher Columbus, who had a pass from some monk. What everybody wanted was to connect Europe to China. So when Hernán Cortés is sent to map the coast of Mexico, what they are thinking about is that: opening up commerce with China. Of course, history must be more beautiful than that, to be told to the children. So the conquest of Mexico becomes an epic in which men who are very manly defeat men who are very manly—what you write an Iliad about. But what they were after, really, was money. And when Mexico City falls, you just have to go a little bit more, to the Pacific Ocean and then you can cross it to China, with no storms, with no problems. There’s a reason why it’s called the Pacific, no? So what they were thinking about was that, and I think that many of the problems of the world we live in now, and more than anything, many similitudes (if that word exists) between that world and ours, come from the fact that there were these moments in which the world kind of crunched and the bad guys imposed a discourse. Francisco Quevedo wrote a fantastic novel when he was young, called Vida del Buscón, which is very fun, very open, very politically critical of empire … and which shows this very fluid sexuality that was the usual trend in the 16th and early 17th century … and yet when he died, he would be writing this incredible text that we would call fascist. What happened in the middle there? Greed. That was the generation that discovered, "Huh, we can own the world. The world is something you can handle. We can circle it, and we can just extract all the gold we want." TM: And one of the ways that you’re binding all this stuff together in the novel is that you’re sort of tracing the movement of objects and people that seem to be connected. So that Anne Boleyn’s hair becomes a tennis ball, the ball gets used in the match … I don’t want to give away the game, as it were, but if you actually follow the objects in the book, part of what you start to see is that this enormous explosion you were just pointing to in Southern Europe, of culture, of ideas, of ambition, is in fact funded—economically but also culturally in some way—by the contact with North America. I mean, you were just talking about this big sort of myth about manly men beating up other manly men and then taking their stuff. But it seems like in a lot of ways what was taken from Mexico becomes a much more dynamic and subversive and transformative element [for Europe] in the book than does the conquest itself. Like, as you write it, Caravaggio doesn’t become Caravaggio without an encounter with Mexico. AE: Which was an obscenely nationalist gesture! TM: Yeah, no, I love it. "No Mexico, No Caravaggio!" AE: But the thing is, Caravaggio could have seen that mitre [an iridescent feather headdress that, in the book, inspires some of Caravaggio’s greatest effects]. He was in that environment, it was true that he painted these paintings for the owner of the mitre. So he could have seen it, or not. They were certainly miraculous objects. TM: Can you talk a little about the mitre and the feather art used to make it, for people who haven't yet read the book? AE: Well, after the conquest, the Nahuatl artists of Mexico were not used to paint. Or they would make paintings, but instead of paint they would use tiny little bird feathers and put them together and produce shades of color, and create with that. It was a type of art that became very popular in the 17th century. It was very expensive to buy a piece made like that—you can imagine why, you know? It was incredibly demanding and difficult to do. And most of this art also is religious art, and I think that point is important, because for centuries those pieces went into museums, and were only there. And if you see these paintings, they are very, very impressive. More when you learn that they were not made with paint, but were made with feathers. And there was, in 2006, maybe, in Mexico City, at the international museum of art, a big global exposition about these things, pieces of feather art that had been recovered from all over Europe and all over the world. The creator of that exposition is a friend of mine, a professor of art at Columbia University named Alessandra Russo. She was working with other researchers and historians, but she was in charge of certain parts of it. So she was one day having lunch with the workers who were setting up the exposition, and they were sitting on the floor of the museum, and the guys tell her, Have you seen the paintings from here, now that you are sitting down here? They were eating a torta. TM: Naturally. AE: A torta, a tamale, surely. And she turns to the pieces and discovers that if you are under them, looking up, they shine. They stop being a painting and become something that produces its own light. The feathers, even at 400 years old, were still capable of projecting the light of the window, reproducing it. And everybody becomes excited with the discovery, and puts some candles on the floor to see what happens, because that’s how those paintings were intended to be seen. And what they discover is that these things become simply hallucinatory. TM: I can’t believe you didn’t put these workers in the novel! That’s a great story: “Look at that, up there!” AE: [Laughs.] I have put them in a dozen interviews instead. It’s amazing. TM: And so in the book … I don’t even know that “spoiler alert” is apposite to this book, but I will just say that Caravaggio has an encounter with this feather art, which is— AE: You already spoiled it! [Laughter] TM: Oh, it’s spoiled? AE: I have been moving around all over the place with the book now for four years, and no one ever noticed that the book is not about people but about objects. That the characters are the objects, not the persons. It’s a novel in which you can have Galileo and Cortés and Caravaggio and Charles the First and so many important characters, because they are not really the characters. The true characters are the tennis balls … so you already spoiled it. TM: I think you’re selling yourself a little short, though, on character. I think that Caravaggio is a fascinating character in the novel, and so is the daughter of the emperor, who has three names, one French, one Spanish, none of which I can pronounce. But what I was going to say is, the description of the featherwork is so extraordinary … I read the book when I was in Europe, and I found myself in Milan like three weeks later, and I kept saying, "It says right here in the book that this [featherpiece] is in the Duomo!" and no one knew what I was talking about. And it occurred to me that it could have been entirely fiction, a sort of Borgesian game. So I’m wondering, for example—actually I don’t want you to answer this question, but—you allege that the Anne-Boleyn-hair tennis ball is in a department of the New York Public Library on 42nd Street, the Archives of Historic Sporting Equipment. I’ve spent a lot of time in that library, and I’ve never stumbled across these archives. [Laughter.] So I wanted to ask you: Clearly a huge amount of research went into this, but how much did you just make up? AE: [Pause.] I don’t know anymore. [Laughter.] I don’t know anymore, but my editor is amazing, and the most patient human being ever, and she can give testimony of how many notations were in the last edited version of the book. It was by that time a nightmare. I hope she never tells about this, but I will tell it before she can, and be revealed as a clown: There were many times I would defend historical points that were completely imaginary! [Laughter.] I am a novelist; I have that privilege. But most of the weirdest stuff is real. It is real that Galileo and Caravaggio were roommates—it’s absolutely real. It’s absolutely real that Galileo was writing his theory of the parabola as he saw Caravaggio playing tennis in the plaza. Many of those things are real. And in the novel, when there are conflicting versions, all of the lists come together. That is the wonder of the novel, you know? It is the great lesson of Cervantes: that you can put in whatever you want, and as long as it somehow relates to the story, it works. TM: The novel has a very peculiar relationship to facts, just as a form. You can put real facts in a novel and they somehow become fictional, and you can make shit up in a novel, and if you put it across with conviction, it starts to seem more true than truth. And so, you know— AE: There may also be generational deformation at work here, too. I did a Ph.D.—it’s one of those mistakes that writers make. TM: Because you think, "Ah! I’ll have lots of time to write while studying for my Ph.D."? AE: Exactly. And: "It will not deform my incredibly innocent way of reading!" I did my Ph.D. in the ’90s. We would read historical books, as fictions. If you were going to become a professor, it was fantastic, because—this sounds like fiction but is real—fiction was forbidden in the Spanish colonies [of the 17th century]. You could publish and read fiction in the metropolis, but if you were outside of that, you couldn’t do it, it was illegal to write fiction. Of course, fiction was always written; the way the writers found to express themselves was writing historical fictions. So once this was established— TM: Like the travel journals? AE: Yeah, the travel journals, and these incredible histories of Latin American countries, this history of Paraguay that speaks about the Greek gods … they were obviously fiction books, but they were presented as history books, and the author could be giving fake stories, as I do, and readers saying, "No, no, no, this is real, this happened." So I think that I have this period as formation; I don’t think that what comes from books is much more trustworthy than what comes from your head as a novelist. I just think that the historical data ... statistically, you can prove it. That is the only difference. But the privilege of a novelist is that you can put things together in a way that the historian can’t. You don’t have to prove it statistically that people smoked cigars in Cuba in the 18th century; you can just put them there. But if you had everything in front of you, it’s quite probable that they would, you know? And I think that that’s the importance ... See, I feel really guilty about writing novels, because they’re useless. TM: You should feel virtuous. The world needs more useless things. AE: Yeah, and we would never accept that they are part of the industry of entertainment. It’s so elegant to be a novelist. Anyway, that would give a sense, a reason, to create novels: In them, you can still propose things to understand the world, without having to offer statistical information. TM: So was the germ of this novel, Sudden Death, a particular factual discovery that you made, or was it a particular imaginative impulse? I had a fantasy as I was reading … there were a couple of times when I was reading that I came across something I wasn’t sure if you made up or not, but I thought: If that’s true, and he found that in a book, he must have thought, “A-ha! There’s a novel!” AE: This is it: It was seeing one of the mitres, one of these feather-art mitres. I had been circling the idea for the rest of the novel for a long time, but it would be such a European novel, you know? And I don’t know, but I think Americans have as pretentious a relationship with Europe as Latin Americans do. I now find kind of antipathetic this Eurocentrism of Julio Cortázar, for example. The je ne sais quoi of the characters of Julio Cortázar—I find it annoying. It’s like, lily white. TM: Not only the ennui, but also the je ne sais quoi! AE: So the novel [I had in mind] was a very European novel. And the idea of how you introduce Mexico into that mess, that had a lot to do with everything at that moment. But the way you put your question, it was the mitres. And the idea of Caravaggio being a tennis player. For years, I had been researching to write a novel about Caravaggio, because as you say, this character, you could write novels all your life about him. He was such an extreme person. TM: He’s almost an allegory for the novel as a form in some way, you know? He’s polysexual, he’s in many ways a brute and very unrefined, and in other ways he’s a genius. AE: He’s sophisticated in his brutality. TM: His attraction for the novelist as a figure to tell stories about just seems very intuitive to me. AE: And he drinks from the water of the poetic theory of the Renaissance that demands a certain amount of reality in artwork. Since, like, immediately after Petrarch, there were these moral writings in Italy demanding that art stop being so affected—that art should be real, should represent life as it is, and no one had found the key to do it. I think that it’s not casual, not just coincidental, that at the moment when Caravaggio is inventing modern art, Cervantes, a few miles away in Madrid, is inventing the novel. I think that they are ways of portraying the world that are very similar in their craziness, in their sophistication, in this, like, moral fury, you know? Cervantes is a furious character. He’s as angry at everything as you are! As is Caravaggio. This resentment—of the poor man who will become important as an artist during his life but who, anyway, will never stop being angry—all of that is there in both of them. TM: And the trick, and sort of the crux, is that somehow the anger doesn’t swallow up the style. Like, they’re both geniuses enough to preserve the stylistic impulse in the middle of this moral fury. You know? And they’re great stylists. And I think that’s in your book in a way, too. It’s a very political book, and I can see in it the skeleton of the very European book it almost was, but you’re such a great stylist—or else you’re a mediocre stylist but you have a great translator—that it turns into something that’s very warm and very human and very real. AE: I am a great stylist. [Laughter.] There is this thing that I think is essential, and that doesn’t always go well, and that is that modern art shows its structure. The Quixote is still the most postmodern book, even when it is the first modern book. Remember the beginning of the second part? Quixote gets a copy of Quixote, the first part, reads it, and says, “This was not like that!” [Laughter.] Right? “I don’t know who wrote this, but it was not like that! I defeated those guys. Everything’s wrong here, and everybody’s reading this? Let’s go out again to fix this problem.” So in the Quixote, the threads are completely visible, as they are in Caravaggio. And I think this is inherent to art.
In early 2016, I had a chance to take my wife and kids to Barcelona for a few months. It felt like a great time to be out of the U.S. in general—primary season!—but especially to be there on the Mediterranean, where winter is what we here call “spring.” I'd been abroad only a handful of times before, never for more than a couple weeks, and now I surrendered giddily to food and architecture and people, a whole different tempo of life. Perhaps not coincidentally, I fell in love with pretty much every book I opened there. I read Open City. I read Spring Torrents. I read Mercè Rodoreda, Catalonia's answer to Clarice Lispector (and a shamefully neglected writer here at home). I read Isherwood and Saramago. Especially, though, I fell under the spell of three contemporary masters of Spanish-language fiction: Javier Cercas, of Barcelona, Javier Marías, of Madrid, and Álvaro Enrigue, of Mexico and New York. Even later, back in the U.S., I would feel with these writers the connection you get when your reading life and your life-life come close enough to touch. Over the last couple years, I've managed to track each of them down for an interview. The second in this series will be with Enrigue; the third with Marías. The first is with Cercas, author of the international bestseller The Soldiers of Salamis and the acclaimed "novel with nonfiction" The Anatomy of a Moment, as well as the novels The Speed of Light and Outlaws. His new novel with nonfiction, The Impostor, tells the true story of Enric Marco, who passed himself off for a quarter century as a Holocaust survivor and leader of the resistance to Franco's dictatorship. In her New York Times review, Parul Seghal wrote of the book's "hot, charged energy" with the thrill of one discovering Cercas's work for the first time. It's a thrill I remember well myself. The Millions: I wanted to start with a curious discrepancy. This summer, I picked up a copy of The Speed of Light in a used bookshop, and I was struck by the self-portrait you've embedded at the beginning there. As in many of your books, there's a Javier Cercas character, and here he's a young man in his mid-20s, a kind of writer manqué, but with no sense of what he might want to write. But then in Roberto Bolaño's nonfiction collection Between Parentheses, he has an essay about you ["Javier Cercas Comes Home"] where he says, in essence, that he's known you since you were 17 and you were always hunting big game, always going to write a masterpiece, and now you've come home to Gerona to do so. So which, I guess I'm asking, was the real you: the schlemiel or the focused, ambitious artist. Javier Cercas: This is very easy, in fact. I was always an outcast. I'm an immigrant, a child of immigrants, from Extremadura. A guy without roots. TM: Even in language, right? Your parents would have spoken Castilian, and now they've landed in Gerona, this city in Catalonia, where everyone speaks Catalan. You're like the character Gafitas, in Outlaws. JC: Yes. And I wanted to be a writer from the very beginning, when I was 14, I think. But because I was an outcast, it was like wanting to be an astronaut ... a very weird thing to be. In fact, Bolaño was probably my first friend who wrote a book in Spanish—and he was something like 47 when he wrote that piece, 10 years older than me. And he still wasn't famous yet the way he is today. I'll tell you a funny story about Bolaño. We were always on the phone, like boyfriend and girlfriend. One day, around the time when he began to be known, he calls me and says, "Javier, there is this anthology of young writers called Yellow Pages that's just come out, and you're not in it. You must have made a big enemy somewhere." I told him, "No, no, that's not true. The problem in fact is that no one even knows who I am!" TM: As in "I should be lucky to have such enemies!" JC: Well, a lot of that is just the way Bolaño saw the world, and it comes through in the piece you mentioned. He had that wonderful sense of literature as a fight. TM: The novelist and the critic fencing on the beach in The Savage Detectives ... JC: Exactly. Anyway, for me, at that time, I knew I was a writer, or wanted to be a writer, but I was a complete outsider. I was completely outside of any literary milieu. TM: Which is not such a bad way to be. So basically you were writing fiction for yourself while scraping by with journalism as a day job, like the Javier in your books, until Soldiers of Salamis came along and changed your life? JC: No, I was in the university. Because I needed to earn my living, you know? This was my idea: being in the university, writing my books, and no one reading them. No one except Bolaño, my mother, and some friends. Which is normal! I have readers now, but that's not normal. I had gone to America for a couple of years to study, and then I had been writing. But at the moment in my life when Bolaño wrote what he wrote about me, I was in a strong depression. I had come back to Gerona, you know, from the States, then Barcelona. At that moment, his piece was very important to me. And it was all lies! TM: Prophecies, not lies. JC: But yes, in any case, Soldiers was the book that changed everything. TM: How did you come to the story of Rafael Sánchez Mazas? I mean, was it all at once, or was it something you had been carrying around? Or a combination: something you had been carrying around for a while that was then catalyzed suddenly by some other thing—the way the Sánchez Mazas story in the first half of book is catalyzed by the story of you and Bolaño and the search for Miralles in the second. JC: The last of these, I think. I had the Sánchez Mazas story originally from his son, Sánchez Ferlioso, as the Javier Cercas character in the book gets it. I should say that all the characters in that book are real. It's a false chronicle, so of course everything has to be real. Except for one character, who you'll never guess. TM: I surrender. JC: The fortune teller, the girlfriend of Javier Cercas, who is completely made up. And of course—and this is completely true—that's the one character who sued me. A real fortune teller in the town where the book is set sued me for using her in my book! The Bolaño part of the story, though, is a little different from the Sánchez Mazas story. Bolaño had told me that part, the story of Miralles, a long time ago. And it occurred to me that I could use it to tell the first story. I went to him and asked him for permission, expecting him to turn me down— TM: Because in your mind it's literary gold— JC: Exactly. And of course he said, "No, no, this is not much of a story," and he allowed me to have it. TM: I sometimes think this is how books come about—that you discover you are the only one who sees the fictional value in a thing, and you almost have to write it because if you don't, no one else will. Anyway, since before Soldiers, from your first work Relatos Reales, all the way up to The Impostor, you've been drawn to this borderland between fiction and nonfiction. What attracted you to it? JC: Well, I thought from the beginning, pure fiction is always a lie, you know? In some way, the fuel is always reality. I wrote about this recently in an essay called The Blind Spot: that the novel is a wonderful genre where you can invent anything you want—that's how Cervantes gave it to us. But that the fuel is reality. As for how to mix the two, each book has its own rules; it all depends on the book. To write a book is to create a game. You have to find the rules, to formulate the question in the most complex possible way. As in The Impostor: "Why did this guy, Enric Marco, the false Holocaust survivor, lie about the worst crime in history?" I'm always trying to write what I don't know. And the first thing the writer must do is figure out the unique rules of the game. If two books have the same rules, one of them is bad. TM: Naturally. JC: In the case of The Impostor, one rule was that it would be redundant to write a fiction about another fiction. Instead, I thought, let's organize the book as a battle between the lies and the truth. And if people ask me, like the man on the radio [NPR's Ari Shapiro] just now, "Why 'novel without fiction?'" I think, "why not?" TM: The "why not" is the freedom. And the rules are the constraints. JC: Yes. You choose your constraints. And then you become a slave to them. There's a moment in the book, I've been interviewing Enric Marco, picking apart his lies, and then at this one moment, this last lie, Marco says, hands on head, "Please leave me something." But I couldn't, because I was a slave to the rules. This was a difficult moment. And yet when I actually sat down to do the writing, I was incredibly happy writing this book—which is not always the case. TM: I wanted to ask you about heroism. We've talked about the method, but at least from Soldiers on, heroism is the subject—even in The Impostor, where it's the image of the hero, or some debased idea of heroism, that seems to hold Marco captive and prod him into his many lies. Kitsch heroism, like the story he tells about playing chess with the concentration camp guard and refusing to lose, even though he knows it may cost his life. Are you aware of this as a through-line, heroism? JC: I don't know where it comes from. Probably my reading as a boy, adventure books. Stevenson. Verne. The Odyssey and The Iliad. But it's a specific kind of heroism I'm interested in. Once Le Monde asked me and some other writers a question: What single word is most important for you? It's a strange question, but the moment I hung up the phone, I knew the answer: the word "No." Sort of quoting Camus: "The Man Who Says No." My novels are about these kinds of heroes, people who say no, or try to say no. TM: What you call, in The Anatomy of a Moment (following Hans Magnus Enzensberger) the "hero of retreat." Like Prime Minister Adolfo Suárez there, who appears in that one moment or period as a very complicated sort of hero, and was far from heroic in all kinds of other ways. JC: There is only one pure hero in all the books: Miralles in Soldiers of Salamis. He has to kill an enemy—a bastard—and still he says no. As for me, I would be among the members of parliament in The Anatomy of a Moment, ducking for cover. And then Marco in The Impostor, of course, is the man who says yes. He would love to be a hero, but can't. TM: Why do you think that is? JC: Virtue is something secret, I think. When it becomes public, it's no longer heroism. Yet Marco had to constantly be saying "I'm a hero, I'm a hero, we're all heroes." And of course, Marco is everyone. We are all, in a sense, this guy; he's a perfect mirror of our time. This book says something awful: We prefer lies to the truth. Lies are beautiful. TM: Sexy, maybe. Pretty. But not beautiful. Beauty is like virtue. Or is virtue. JC: My question all along was, Why don't people call him on his lies? And the answer is that people prefer pretty lies to the truth. The truth about Nazi camps is complex, dirty, and not beautiful. Claudio Magris wrote about Marco something like "He lied, yes, but for a good cause." But that's bullshit. What he was spreading was adulterated, romantic, heroic kitsch. And we prefer that. That's why Donald Trump is in your White House. TM: And in Spain, what was the reaction to this book? I knew when I first heard about it that American readers would be interested in it. We have the kind of relationship you're describing with dirty parts of our own history, with slavery and exploitation, but we have this less complicated relationship, at least publicly, with the fight against Naziism. But in Spain, part of the "historical memory" movement you contributed to with Soldiers and write about in Anatomy and The Impostor has to involve negotiating the complicity of ordinary people with Francoism, with fascism. Marco, you suggest, offered a heroic version of "historical memory" that helped ordinary people feel virtuous. So what was the reaction domestically to your writing about Marco, and in a sense calling out the lies? JC: The answer is quite easy. I have my readers in Spanish. So with them, I have no problem. But many other people were resistant to what I am saying in the book. Don't get me wrong, "historical memory" is essential. What's Faulkner's line? The past is not dead. The past, of which we are living witnesses, is part of the present, without which the present is mutilated. The Spanish Civil War is the present. Francoism is the present. But the truth is, necessarily, that most people accepted Francoism. And that most people adulterate or erase the worst part of their history. I recently read this suggestion by Tzvetan Todorov, that de Gaulle convinced the French people they were all Resistance: "Les français n'ont pas besoin de la verité," he said. People tend to mask ... and I understand that. But now, it is not possible. The movement for "historical memory" in Spain was insufficient, and became fiction: "We were all anti-Franco. We were all heroes." It's completely false—bullshit! The reality is more complex and ugly: Fascism was supported by many people. And I don't blame them. To be a hero is very difficult. You go to jail and die, is the usual outcome. Yet it shows a lack of respect to lie about it. If you lie about the past, you lie about the present. Another Faulkner line, from a letter, I think: "There is no such thing as was." A lot of Catalans and the Left, in particular, were mad at me for The Impostor. But it's a national problem. We're drowning in lies. TM: Especially you, it seems. There's a moment in the book, early on, that's a curious one. You're at a dinner, in Madrid I think, with Mario Vargas Llosa and some others, and the discussion turns to the just-unmasked Enric Marco, and someone suggests you have to write about him because he's so much like a character in your books. You say something like, "Well we're all impostors," and someone says, "But especially you, Javier." You don't return to this line for many hundreds of pages in the book, but it seems to form some secret connection between you and Marco. Why are you, uniquely, an impostor? JC: I'm going to tell you a secret, and it's very interesting: There is one chapter in this battle between truth and lies that is invented. It's a dialogue ... I don't know, a daydream or something. And the answer is there. Because there Marco can say what he really wants, can attack me. He says, OK, I lied. But you did, too. In fact, Marco wanted to be Miralles. But he tells me "You married fiction and fact, you became famous, a millionaire"—which is not true, of course—"But I did the same and I was a pariah. And remember," he's saying, "You are me. I am you." Of course, he's lying. TM: In the midst of a chapter you've invented. JC: But that's the idea. The book, really, is a fight between impostors.
One thing you could always say for me: I was a finisher. I may not have been a great reader, but by God I was dogged, and if I made it through the opening 10th of a book, then I was going all the way to the end. Though this started as merely an inclination, it eventually became a rule, for reasons I can't quite understand. There are, after all, so many books that deserve abandonment, and to this day I admire readers like my wife, who can jump ship after 80 pages. But I suppose my years as an altar boy left their mark, both in a too-easy conflation of negligence and sin and in a deeper, anthropomorphic sense that even a bad book might at the last minute change into something singular and not-to-be-missed. "Everyone, real or invented, deserves the open destiny of life," as Grace Paley put it, in her own American idiom. And if I was to be the little god of the worlds I made when turning the pages, then who was I to let a little boredom or disappointment turn me away? I mean, isn't the real God, if there is one, a finisher, too? This isn't to say there weren't challenges. The Book of Disquiet took me over a year, and several running starts. Ditto Being & Time. Proust I read over four summers, and though there was never a moment when he sunk me in the swamps of saudade, or gave me whatever is German for brain-freeze, it took a certain monogamous willfulness to return to, say, The Fugitive when fresher titles beckoned from the shelf. But then came baby #3. Let's call her N. She was not, exactly, planned on, though for several consecutive springs when my manic phase rolled in I had this sense that my own open destiny would probably include throwing myself out of the fatherhood plane one more time. Capping the family at two kids would have felt like stopping Proust after book six, somehow. I hasten to say of baby N, as of Proust: totally worth it. Except that all of a sudden I couldn't finish anything. When N was born, back in February, The Great War raged in Robert Musil’s diary. Socialism, in G.D.H. Cole’s five-volume history, had entered its anarchist phase. Now, in December, poor Robert Musil still hasn't reached an armistice, while socialism retains a markedly anarchist flavor. Here was me in the first few months after the delivery: I would open a novel, read along perfectly happily for a day or two, and then let it drop. I was waiting for the thing that would sweep me up and carry me through. But perhaps my reading list was too ambitious for my circumstances. (Like, who outside of grad school reads Musil at the same time as G.D.H. Cole?) I told myself I would move, temporarily, to something more sensible. But to no avail. My study grew littered with dog-eared New Yorkers, foreshortened short stories, longreads I sputtered out halfway through. Many of which I enjoyed, and hope to finish in the near future. For now, though, my year in reading comes back to me as a mixtape, as hip-hop: a swirl of enticing samples. Bits and pieces of Laura Oldfield Ford’s ’zine cycle, Savage Messiah. Phosphorescent sentences from Jaimy Gordon’s Shamp of the City-Solo. Andrew O'Hagan’s essay on Satoshi Nakamoto. Ian Frazier’s on New Jersey Route 3. The poem "Far Rockaway" by Delmore Schwartz. The part of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s A Time for Everything when Antinous Bellori spots some angels in the woods. The part of Hermann Broch’s The Death of Virgil where Virgil arrives in Brundisium and the translation hasn't yet gone bananas. The unimprovable first paragraph of Jenny Erpenbeck’s The End of Days. And Joseph Conrad’s "The Secret Sharer," whose allegorical valences were not lost on me. Here I was looking down from the deck of a ship, not quite where I ever thought I'd be, while down there in the water, untethered but unreachable, swam another, truer self. [millions_ad] Okay, so I guess I did finish the Conrad. And by summer there were other things, small things, I was managing to see to the end. Like several short stories by Mavis Gallant, including "Speck's Idea," probably the single most perfect piece of fiction I read this year. Gallant at her best is every bit the equal of Alice Munro, Deborah Eisenberg, or Joy Williams. Whose story "Stuff" was another highlight. As was Claire Vaye Watkins’s "I Love You But I've Chosen Darkness," from the Granta "Best of Young American Novelists" issue. Or like the essays in Zadie Smith’s forthcoming collection, Feel Free. Several years ago, I thought I noticed a turn in Smith's nonfiction, a loosening of the burdens of her remarkable erudition, like an astronaut swapping out the gravity boots, or like a swimmer kicking off from land. The places she now consistently reaches in her essays—on Joni Mitchell and Get Out and Anomalisa and joy—are not only nearer to the distant philosophical goalposts of the true and the just and the beautiful...they get us there with truth and justice and beauty of their own, and with an extraordinary, dab-worthy grace. In short, I feel lucky to be alive at a time when these essays are being written. People must have felt similarly fortunate reading A Room of One’s Own a century ago, or hearing it in its original form, as lectures. I somehow made it to 38 without having read it, and in a weird way, I'm glad I did. In a college classroom, I might not have understood it as I did this summer in Maine, as a book not only about feminism, or art (as if these were ever "only"), but about how to live, for everyone, everywhere. That was a good week for finishing things, come to think of it, because I also, finally, tackled Evan S. Connell’s Mr. and Mrs. Bridge, those sterling examples of love as an act of ruthless attention. And I read much of Neil Sheehan’s A Bright, Shining Lie, a monument of narrative nonfiction that belongs on the national required reading list. There was, too, the compellingly terrible first couple hundred pages of Harlot’s Ghost, part of an ongoing personal Norman Mailer project I probably won't complete short of a vasectomy. There are times these days when I find bad writing as exciting as good writing. Maybe more. And apparently it's not just me, because Mailer seems to bring the best out of his critics. Witness Elizabeth Hardwick, in her long-overdue Collected Essays: "the demonic, original clutter of Mailer's high style." Or witness Jonathan Lethem: "If, as in the Isaiah Berlin formulation, 'the fox knows many little things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing,' then Mailer's gift and curse was to have been a hedgehog trapped inside an exploding fox." Other, more recent titles I should mention: Ben Blum’s Ranger Games, a gripping and thoughtful blend of memoir and true-crime. George Saunders’s Lincoln in the Bardo, which I can't make up my mind about—usually a good sign. And Ta-Nehisi Coates’s "My President Was Black," with its arresting final cadences. I had read, and felt conflicted about, the epilogue to Coates’s We Were Eight Years in Power when it appeared as a stand-alone in The Atlantic. (This is how I read now: epilogue first). If the evidence was hard to reproach, the rhetoric seemed to me flawed. But the book as a whole makes the argument far more persuasively, and—I know this is a little contrarian—I think it's a more fully realized piece of analysis than Between the World and Me. Coates is that rare thing in our public life: a writer willing to let us see him becoming. We'll need more of that in the year to come. And finally, while on the subject of public life and presidents and the winter that is now upon us, I suppose it's time—with apologies to any of his supporters left reading The Millions—to invoke He Who Must Not Be Named. For, as much as I've been pinning my distractibility on baby N (which would suggest I only have to persevere till she sleeps through the night), a novelist friend of mine recently proposed a counter-explanation. "Oh, yeah, man, that's not you, it's everyone," he said. "All of our colleagues, everyone I talk to, my mom and stepdad, their neighbors...It's been everyone's worst year in reading." His argument was that we're so inundated just at present with narrative and fantasy—with one particular person's narrative and fantasy—that the last thing we want in our reading lives is more imagination. If democracy dies in darkness, then dispense with the dreaming. Just give me the facts. Now, if I were a Trumpist, I'd probably say "just give me a break." There goes the liberal culture industry again, blaming him for their own failings, for every last thing they don't like. To which I simply ask: aren't you, too, tired of it? The insults, the feuds, the hysterical touchiness, the drag masculinity, the swamping of the drain, the bull in the nuclear china shop? Not to mention the buck stopping perpetually elsewhere. If politics has become a reality show, we've progressed in the last 18 months from the guilty pleasure of The Apprentice to the absurdity of The Celebrity Apprentice to, like, Season 7 of Real Housewives...and did anyone not stuck on an airplane even watch Season 7 of Real Housewives? Haven't you, too, found far more of your brain given over to Donald Trump than you should have give over to even a good president? Or to put it another way: isn't one definition of "a good president" "one you don't have to constantly keep your eye on?" Speaking personally, I'm realizing that I read just as much this year as any year...it's just that hundreds of my hours were given over to news, lest I fail to be aware of some developing crisis. And in the station wagon of representative government, the driver's not supposed to be hunched over his twitter feed, leaving everyone else to watch out for hazards. We - I mean to include Trump voters here, too - deserve better. We deserve, at a minimum, adult hands on the wheel. As to what duties an informed citizenry does have, in this or any other time, it's worth asking: is newspaper prose plus a handful of cultural swatches anyone's definition of an inner life? Will even the richest fragments be enough to shield us from ruin? Somehow, I don't think so. In the short run, the con man who now has the car keys may have exposed our gullibility, sending all of us scrambling to find out things we never had to know before. But the long-term damage may be to a quantity so abused as to have fallen into shame and disrepute: the capacity for belief. We will need, if we are to stitch ourselves together again, to find stories that bridge the unbridgeable, stories that make sense of the senseless, or simply present it in all its mystery, stories that respect the difference between facts and truth - stories worth believing in. In some small way, then, seeing a novel or a poem or a work of imaginative nonfiction through to completion may turn out to be not an irrelevance but an act of subversion. Or better yet: preparation. Here's to being a better finisher in 2018. More from A Year in Reading 2017 Do you love Year in Reading and the amazing books and arts content that The Millions produces year round? We are asking readers for support to ensure that The Millions can stay vibrant for years to come. Please click here to learn about several simple ways you can support The Millions now. Don't miss: A Year in Reading 2016, 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005
The year I first swam in the Mediterranean. The year my wife became pregnant again. The year I finally finished Homage to Catalonia. The year I finally began a new novel. The year I fell in love with Diego Velázquez. The year of questionable decisions in a Neapolitan disco. The year I learned about kombucha. The year I would move overseas for a while. The year I would sometimes wonder why I'd ever come back. The year of the Trump hole. The year of YouTubing Mr. Rogers for self-medication. The year everybody needed to get the f*** off the Internet. The year of spectacular mid-Atlantic fall. I've always believed in the idea of a zeitgeist, but there are years when the local topography feels especially entangled with the global map. 2016, for me at least, was not one of those. When I look back, I can't avoid the sense of democratic crisis in Europe, or the open conflagration in the Middle East, or the airborne toxic event that was the U.S. presidential election. Winter may well be coming. Yet I also remember, at the more intimate level on which life is mostly lived, moments of mystery, adventure, and grace that seem connected to some other story entirely. Nowhere were those moments more readily available than in the books I chose to read. Perhaps it's most accurate to say, then, that 2016 was a year that gave me plenty of reasons to keep reading. As ever, it's hard to settle on a single title to recommend above any other, but I think I can get the list of absolute best things I read this year down to four. Around the start of a three-month sojourn in Barcelona, I tackled Javier Cercas's The Anatomy of a Moment, and found it to be be one of the most penetrating, mature, and nuanced books about politics ever written. Cercas's ostensible subject is the coup that nearly toppled Spain's fragile democracy in the early '80s. It's a story he unfolds with a characteristic blend of factual scruple and novelistic technique: the pacing is Three Days of the Condor by way of 24 Hour Psycho. Underneath, though, is an argument about heroism that feels both true and profoundly at odds with our usual assumptions. In the context of a government of men, Cercas suggests, real and durable greatness is marked by compromises, trade-offs, disappointments, and missed opportunities, rather than their absence. Not to give away the ending, but maybe politics is more like real life than we'd like to imagine. While in Iberia, I also read José Saramago's Blindness, and immediately regretted the 20 years it took me to pick it up. It, too, works as a kind of political allegory, with hard-to-miss Platonic overtones, but even more than Cercas, Saramago sees power relations as emergent properties of the whole rich mess of human experience: love, sex, death, community. That he can convey this richness with such impoverished means -- the characters are all, for most of the novel, imprisoned in a building they can't see -- is a miracle of art. As beautiful and harrowing as its obvious model, The Plague (and for my money more lifelike in its intimacies), this is a novel people will still be reading in 100 years, if they're still reading at all. Or indeed, still alive on planet Earth. Another discovery for me this year, though of a different sort, was the Finnish-Swedish author and illustrator Tove Jansson. Best known for her ingenious Moomin comics, Jansson also wrote several books aimed at adults, including the The Summer Book. Not much happens in this portrait of a headstrong girl and her equally headstrong grandmother and the island where they spend their summers, but that's the novel's great virtue. The Summer Book is pure loveliness. The movements of tides and winds and boats and insects loom larger for our narrator than the currents of history, and the profound quiet of the setting -- I'm reminded of Akhil Sharma's description of a prose like "white light" -- allows us to hear Jansson's unsparing and ironic tenderness, a tone that remains purely her own, even in translation. The fourth of my European discoveries this year was Christopher Isherwood. I was on my way to Berlin and, like the guy who wears the concert tee-shirt to the actual concert, decided to take Goodbye to Berlin. What drew me in initially was Isherwood's (to my ear) flawless prose, which by itself would put him in a select group of 20th-century English novelists. But the real rewards were the book's surprising scope and depth. For my money, Isherwood and his fictional avatar cast a more comprehensive eye on their moment than Evelyn Waugh or Henry Green or even Graham Greene. The novel walks the tragicomic line with an irreproachable poker face, and so maybe sets an example for us all in these shall-we-say interesting times. Later, back on U.S. soil, I found myself allergic to my traditional time-waster, the newspaper, and so tried to escape into the news of other periods, to restore some perspective. Around the time of the party conventions, I read Miami and the Siege of Chicago, and (though it's an odd kind of compliment) found it to be Norman Mailer's most disciplined performance, and one that still resonates today. Barbarians at the Gate, which I found for a dollar at a library book sale in Maine, has likewise aged well, in part because the rank self-dealing it depicts now seems a kind of national ethos. As for Volker Ullrich's Hitler: The Ascent...well, I guess it says something that I turned to this for refuge. Much was made earlier this year of certain historical parallels, but even as it reminds us that "it can happen here," the book is also detailed enough to illuminate the ways it's not happening here, not yet, and needn't ever, unless we let it. As for contemporary fiction, I read a lot of what you might call flaneurial fiction, fiction in the shadow of W.G. Sebald's The Rings of Saturn, and maybe Robert Walser's The Walk. I finally read, for example, Teju Cole's Open City, a New York novel of exquisite intelligence and refinement, weaving together urban anomie, the history of Dutch colonialism, and the aftermath of September 11. I read Valeria Luiselli's haunting debut, Faces in the Crowd (which does the same for Harlem, potted plants, and Federico García Lorca), and Álvaro Enrigue's psychedelic Sudden Death (Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, tennis, the conquest of the Americas). Then, in search of further antecedents, I read, belatedly, Enrique Vila-Matas's Bartleby & Co., whose wit and melancholy sent me on a Vila-Matas bender. In a somewhat different vein, I read Amit Chaudhuri's beautiful Odysseus Abroad and Geoff Dyer's Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi. These are flaneurial novels in the sense of being plotless, but for the essayistic digressions of a Cole or a Luiselli, they substitute the momentum of a quest, a walk with a destination. And each, I think, further complicates the ongoing debate about fictiveness and authenticity. Though neither hides its "reality hunger," exactly, each deploys on its autobiographical material a novelistic imagination as powerful as anything in Charles Dickens...it's just tucked in the corners, where you don't quite notice it. The result in each case is a work where the world and the word are beautifully in balance. (In August, when I finally got around to Paula Fox's Desperate Characters, I was reminded that this subtle form of transformation is an old-fashioned form of magic.) As for current fiction that more fully gratifies my own imagination hunger, I can point to Javier Marías's Thus Bad Begins, a tour de force of wit, suspense, and history. I can point to Nathan Hill's The Nix, whose disparate concerns -- video games, parental neglect, political anger -- are bound together by the warmth, charm, and wit of the author's voice. And I can point to Don DeLillo's Zero K, whose extraordinary final pages seem a capstone for the author's work of the last 20 years. To quote DeLillo himself (writing of Harold Brodkey), it's been one of "the great brave journeys of American literature." Finally, speaking of great, brave journeys, I can't look back on this year without talking about Go Down, Moses. I've been reading my way through the Faulkner oeuvre for almost 20 years now, and am down to what I think of as the "third shelf;" soon I'll be left with only Requiem for a Nun and Soldier's Pay. I've put off reading GD,M in its entirety because many of the short stories it collects are available in other forms; I don't know how many different versions of "The Bear" I've read in my lifetime. But Go Down, Moses, taken as a whole, is really a novel, and one that reminds me of all the novel can do, as in this description of Sam Feathers's wilderness grave: the tree, the other axle-grease tin nailed to the trunk, but weathered, rusted, alien too yet healed already into the wilderness' concordant generality, raising no tuneless note, and empty, long since empty of the food and tobacco he had put into it that day, as empty of that as it would presently be of this which he drew from his pocket -- the twist of tobacco, the new bandanna handkerchief, the small paper sack of the peppermint candy which Sam had used to love; that gone, too, almost before he had turned his back, not vanished but merely translated into the myriad life which printed the dark mold of these secret and sunless places. The dark mold, the secret and sunless places, yes, but also the axle-grease and the peppermint candy, the specific, local, and alive, and the living generality that heals it all together. It's an act of imagination on Faulkner's part, and on his reader's, but no less real -- in fact more real -- for it. And maybe in the most sunless part of this generally dark year, that's reason enough for hope. More from A Year in Reading 2016 Do you love Year in Reading and the amazing books and arts content that The Millions produces year round? We are asking readers for support to ensure that The Millions can stay vibrant for years to come. Please click here to learn about several simple ways you can support The Millions now. Don't miss: A Year in Reading 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005
Winter As if to mark the new year, or as if preemptively depressed by the brutal lows and snows of the months to come, our thermostat suffered a nervous breakdown in the first weeks of 2015. The new normal was 63 degrees Fahrenheit. I'd wake before dawn, put on long johns, pants, fleece, and hat, and sit down at my desk, between north-facing windows, trying to start something new. The phrase "rough draft" took on a new meaning. As did the phrase "starting cold." By noon -- an interval during which I'd moved only to shower and take the kids to school and re-wrap myself in a horse blanket -- my fingers and nose were phantom appendages. Looking back on this now, though, I feel a surge of warmth. Why? Because every afternoon, after a late lunch, I'd fire up the space heater in the living room and sprawl in a patch of sun and return to an imagined Italy. I'd begun Elena Ferrante's Neapolitan Novels with a rationing plan: one volume for each season of the year, to culminate with the publication of the fourth and final installment in September. But a week after I finished Volume 1, that plan went all to hell. More than Lila and Lenù (heroines, antagonists, entangled particles), I missed the volcanic energy they generated together. Nothing else I tried to read seemed quite as vivid. So I dipped into Volume 2 -- just a few pages, I told myself. And then when I reached the end, I didn't even pretend to wait to begin Volume 3. At various times, in the empty house, I caught myself talking back to the page. "Wake up, Lenù!" "Don't open that door!" "Oh, no, she didn't!" Oh, yes, she did. The only not-fun part of binge-reading the Neapolitan series was running out of pages before the end -- which, by mid-February, I had. I felt like Wile E. Coyote, having raced out over a canyon, legs still churning, but with nothing left beneath. Eventually, I found a different kind of escape: Ivan Goncharov's Oblomov, a dreamy 19th-century Russian novel where, basically, nothing happens. Rather than distract me from my snowbound state, this novel seemed to mirror it. For the first 100 pages, Oblomov, our hero, can't even get out of bed. He's an archetype of inanition, a Slavic Bartleby, but with a gentleness of spirit that's closer to The Big Lebowski. He falls in love, screws it up, gets rooked by friends and enemies...and hardly has to change his dressing gown. Sufficiently cooled from Ferrante fever, I moved on to Elizabeth Hardwick's Sleepless Nights, from 1979. I've taught (and admired) Hardwick's essays, but was somehow unprepared for this novel. Fans often mention it in the company of Renata Adler's Speedboat and Joan Didion's Play It as It Lays, with which it shares a jagged, elliptical construction and a quality of nervy restraint. But where the fragments of Adler and Didion suggest (for me, anyway), a kind of schizoid present-tense, Hardwick's novel is as swinging and stately as a song by her beloved Billie Holiday, ringing “glittering, somber, and solitary” changes from remembered joy and pain. Spring As the glaciers beyond my windows melted to something more shovel-ready, I began to fantasize about a piece called "In Praise of Small Things." At the top of the list, along with the Hardwick, would go Denis Johnson's Train Dreams, the story of a Western railroad worker around the turn of the last century. I’m still a sucker for full, Ferrante-style immersion (favorite Westerns include The Border Trilogy, Lonesome Dove, and A Fistful of Dollars), but to deliver an entire life in a single sitting, as Johnson does, seems closer to magic than to art. Train Dreams is just about perfect, in the way only a short novel can be. Then again, I also (finally) tackled The Satanic Verses this year, and caught myself thinking that perfection would have marred it. The book is loose, ample, brimful -- at times bubbling over with passion. Another way of saying this is that it's Salman Rushdie's most generous novel. The language is often amazing. And frankly, that the fatwa now overshadows the work it meant to rub out is a compound injustice; many of the novel's most nuanced moments, its most real and human moments, involve precisely those issues of belief and politics and belonging Rushdie was accused of caricaturing. Also: the shaving scene made me cry. Though by that point spring had my blood up. Maybe that's why I was so ready for Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa's The Leopard. Or maybe it was the return to Italy. Either way, this turned out to be one of the most beautiful novels I’ve ever read. As with Hardwick, the mode is elegy, but here all is expansion, sumptuousness, texture: the fading way of life of an endearingly self-regarding 19th-century aristocrat, ambered in slow, rich prose (in Archibald Colquhoun’s translation): “In a corner the gold of an acacia tree introduced a sudden note of gaiety. Every sod seemed to exude a yearning for beauty soon muted by languor.” And by the time I finished, gardens were blooming and buzzing around me, too. Summer I woke the morning after our Fourth of July party to find that a guest had left a gift: Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen, Mary Norris's memoir of life in the copy department of The New Yorker. We headed to the beach, on the theory that saltwater is an antidote to hangover. But I ended up spending most of the afternoon on a towel, baking, giggling, geeking out over grammar and New Yorker trivia. What kind of magazine keeps a writer this engaging in the copy department? I wondered. On the other hand: what are the odds that a grammarian this scrupulous would be such a freewheeling confidante? I don't think of myself as a memoir guy, but (appetite whetted by the Comma Queen), I ran out a few weeks later to buy a brand new copy of William Finnegan's Barbarian Days -- a book I'd been waiting to read since first encountering an excerpt a decade ago. Finnegan is a brilliant reporter, and the core material here -- his life of peripatetic adventuring in the 1970s -- seems, as material goes, unimprovable. Around it, he builds a narrative that is at once meticulously concrete and wonderfully, elusively metaphorical. Even if you don't know or care about surfing, the whole thing starts to seem like some kind of parable. Which may be true of most good sports writing... And speaking of brilliant reporting: in early August, I plucked a copy of David Simon and Ed Burns's The Corner from the giveaway pile on someone's stoop. It's exhaustive -- almost 600 pages, and none of the broad strokes, in 2015, should come as news. Yet its account of individual struggle and systemic failure in a poor neighborhood in Baltimore is nonetheless enraging, because so little seems to have changed since the book's publication in 1997. I found myself wanting to send a copy to every newsroom in the country. Here on the page are causes; there in the paper years later, effects. It would take a week of vacation and newspaper-avoidance in Maine to remind me of how urgent fiction can be, too -- or of the value of the different kind of news it brings. I read A Sport and a Pastime. I read Double Indemnity. I read The House of Mirth. And I fell into -- utterly into -- Javier Marías's A Heart So White. This novel has some similarities with The Infatuations, which I wrote about last year; Marías works from a recipe (one part Hitchcock-y suspense, one part Sebaldian fugue, one part sly humor) that sounds, on paper, like a doomed thought experiment. Yet somehow every time I read one of his novels, I feel lit up, viscerally transfixed. And A Heart So White is, I think, a masterpiece. Fall This October, I published a novel. And I came to suspect that prepub jitters had been shaping both my reading and my writing all year, from those cold dark starts in January to my lean toward nonfiction in the summer. Anyway, some admixture of vacation and publication (the phrase “release date” takes on a whole new meaning) seemed to cleanse the windows of perception, because I spent most of the fall catching up on -- and enjoying -- recent books I’d missed. Preparation for the Next Life, for example, was love at fist page; if you'd told me Atticus Lish was another of Don DeLillo's pseudonyms, like Cleo Birdwell, I wouldn’t have batted an eyelash. Yet an eccentric and (one feels) highly personal sense of the particular and the universal colors the prose, and Lish doesn't let sentimentalism scare him away from sentiment. His milieu of hardscrabble immigrants and natives jostling in Flushing, Queens, feels both up-to-the-minute and likely to endure. Someone should Secret-Santa a copy to Donald Trump. Another contemporary novel I loved this fall was actually more of a novella -- another small, good thing. Called Grief Is the Thing with Feathers, it’s the first published work of fiction by a young Englishman named Max Porter. It follows a father of two through the year after the death of his wife. The chapters are compressed, poetic vignettes that evoke the chimera of grief through suggestion and indirection. And then, more evocative still: the arrival of a giant, metempsychotic raven straight out of Ted Hughes's Crow. You quickly forget that the book is weird as hell, because it is also beautiful as hell, moving as hell, and funny as hell. In late October, I got to spend a week in the U.K., and decided to pack London Fields. A boring choice, I know, but I'd been shuttling from here to there for a few weeks, and needed to be pinned down in some specific, preferably Technicolor, place. London Fields didn't let me down. The metafictional schema shouldn't work, but does. And more importantly, a quarter century after its publication (and 15 years on from the pre-millennial tension it depicts), the prose still bristles, jostles, offends freely, shoots off sparks. The picture of the world on offer is bleak, yes. Yet in surprise, in pleasure, in truthfulness, almost every sentence surpasses the last. This book is now my favorite Martin Amis. I wouldn't trade it for love or Money. As synchronicity goes, M Train on a plane may not quite match London Fields in London, but Patti Smith's new book remains one of the best reading experiences I had this year. Like Grief Is the Thing with Feathers, it is elliptical and fragmentary, weird and beautiful, and, at its core, a reckoning with loss. Much has been made of the book's seeming spontaneity, its diaristic drift. But as the echoes among its discrete episodes pile up, it starts to resonate like a poem. At one point, Smith writes about W.G. Sebald, and there are affinities with The Emigrants in the way M Train circles around a tragedy, or constellation of tragedies, pointing rather than naming. It is formally a riskier book than the comparatively straight-ahead Just Kids, but a worthy companion piece. And that Patti Smith is still taking on these big artistic dares in 2015 should inspire anyone who longs to make art. In this way, and because it is partly a book about reading other books -- how a life is made of volumes--- it seems like a fitting way to turn the page on one year in reading, and to welcome in another. More from A Year in Reading 2015 Don't miss: A Year in Reading 2014, 2013, 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.
This year, for the first time since I was 18, I suffered a bout of what you might call Reader's Block. It hit me in the spring and lasted about six weeks. The proximate cause was an excess of work, hunched hours in front of a computer that left me feeling like a jeweler's loupe was lodged in each eye. I'd turn to the door of my study -- Oh, God! An axe-wielding giant! No, wait: that's just my two year old, offering a mauled bagel. And because the only prose that doesn't look comparably distorted at that level of magnification belongs to E.B. White, Gertrude Stein, and whoever wrote the King James Bible, I mostly confined myself to the newspaper, when I read anything at all. This hiatus from literature gave me a new compassion for people who glance up from smartphones to tell me they're too busy to read, and for those writers (students, mostly) who claim to avoid other people's work when they're working. Yet I found that for me, at least, the old programmer's maxim applies: Garbage In, Garbage Out. I mean this not just as someone with aesthetic aspirations, or pretensions, or whatever, but also as a human being. The deeper cause of my reader's block, I can admit now, was my father's death at the end of May, after several years of illness. He was a writer, too; he'd published a novel when he was about the age I am now, and subsequently a travelogue. And maybe I had absorbed, over the years, some of his misapprehensions about what good writing might accomplish, vis-a-vis mortality; maybe I was now rebelling against the futility of the whole enterprise. I don't know. I do know that in the last weeks before he died, those weeks of no reading, I felt anxious, adrift, locked inside my grief. Then in June, on some instinct to steer into the skid, I reached for Henderson the Rain King. It was the last of the major Bellows I hadn't read. I'd shied away partly for fear of its African setting, but mostly because it was the Saul Bellow book my father would always recommend. I'd say I was reading Humboldt's Gift, and he'd say, "But have you read Henderson the Rain King?" Or I'd say I was reading Middlemarch, and he'd say "Sure, but have you read Henderson the Rain King?" I'd say I was heavily into early Sonic Youth. "Okay, but there's this wonderful book..." There were times when I wondered if he'd actually read Henderson the Rain King, or if, having established that I hadn't read it, he saw it as a safe way to short-circuit any invitation into my inner life. And I suppose I was afraid that if I finally read Henderson and was unmoved, or worse, it would either confirm the hypothesis or demolish for all time my sense of my dad as a person of taste. But of course the novel's mise-en-scène is a ruse (as Bellow well knew, never having been to Africa). Or if that still sounds imperialist, a dreamscape. Really, the whole thing is set at the center of a battered, lonely, yearning, and comical human heart. A heart that says, "I want, I want, I want." A heart that could have been my father's. Or my own. And though that heart doesn't get what it wants -- that's not its nature -- it gets something perhaps more durable. Midway through the novel, King Dahfu of the Wariri tries to talk a woebegone Henderson into hanging out with a lion: "What can she do for you? Many things. First she is unavoidable. Test it, and you will find she is unavoidable. And this is what you need, as you are an avoider. Oh, you have accomplished momentous avoidances. But she will change that. She will make consciousness to shine. She will burnish you. She will force the present moment upon you. Second, lions are experiences. But not in haste. They experience with deliberate luxury...Then there are more subtle things, as how she leaves hints, or elicits caresses. But I cannot expect you to see this at first. She has much to teach you." To which Henderson replies: "‘Teach? You really mean that she might change me.’" "‘Excellent,'" the king says: "Precisely. Change. You fled what you were. You did not believe you had to perish. Once more, and a last time, you tried the world. With a hope of alteration. Oh, do not be surprised by such a recognition." The lion stuff in Henderson, like the tennis stuff in Infinite Jest, inclines pretty nakedly toward ars poetica. Deliberate luxury, burnished consciousness, a sense of inevitability -- aren't these a reader's hopes, too? And then: the deep recognition, the resulting change. Henderson the Rain King gave me all that, at the time when I needed it most. Then again, such a recognition is always surprising, because it's damn hard to come by. And so, though I'm already at 800 words here, I'd like to list some of my other best reading experiences of 2014 (the back half of which amounted to a long, post-Henderson binge). Maybe one of them will do for you what that lion did for me. Light Years, by James Salter Despite the eloquent advocacy of my Millions colleague Sonya Chung, I'd always had this idea of James Salter as some kind of Mandarin, a writer for other writers. But I read Light Years over two days in August, and found it a masterpiece. The beauty of Salter's prose -- and it is beautiful -- isn't the kind that comes from fussing endlessly over clauses, but the kind that comes from looking up from the page, listening hard to whatever's beyond. And what Light Years hears, as the title suggests, is time passing, the arrival and inevitable departure of everything dear to us. It is music like ice cracking, a river in the spring. The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, by Muriel Spark I've long known I should read Muriel Spark, but it took the republication of some of her backlist (by New Directions) to get me off the fence. Spark shares with Salter a sublime detachment, an almost Olympian view of the passage of time. This latter seems to be her real subject in Miss Jean Brodie, inscribed even in the dazzling structure of the novel. But unlike Salter, Spark is funny. Really funny. Her reputation for mercilessness is not unearned, but the comedy here is deeper, I think. As in Jonathan Franzen's novels, it issues less from the exposure of flawed and unlikeable characters than from the author's warring impulses: to see them clearly, vs. to love them. Ultimately, in most good fiction, these amount to the same thing. The Unbearable Lightness of Being, by Milan Kundera This was a popular novel among grown-ups when I was a kid, and so I was pleasantly surprised to discover how stubborn and weird a work it is. And lovable for all that. Kundera keeps us at a peculiar distance from his protagonists, almost as if telling a fairy tale. Description is sparing. Plot is mostly sex. Also travel. At times, I had to remind myself which character was which. In a short story, this might be a liability. Yet somehow, over the length of the novel, through nuances of juxtaposition and patterning, Kundera manages to evoke states of feeling I've never seen on the page before. Political sadness. Emotional philosophy. The unbearable lightness of the title. All of this would seem to be as relevant in the U.S. in 2015 as in 1970s Prague. The Infatuations, by Javier Marías Hari Kunzru has captured, in a previous Year in Reading entry, how forbidding Javier Marías's novels can seem from a distance. (Though maybe this is true of all great stylists. Lolita, anyone?) Marías is a formidably cerebral writer, whose long sentences are like fugues: a theme is introduced, toyed with, pursued to another theme, put down, taken up again. None of this screams pleasure. But neither would a purely formal description of an Alfred Hitchcock movie. The tremendous pleasure of The Infatuations, Marías's most recent novel to appear in English, arrives from those most uncerebral places: plot, suspense, character. It's like a literary version of Strangers on a Train, cool formal mastery put to exquisitely visceral effect. "Don't open that door, Maria!" The Infatuations is the best new novel I read all year; I knew within the first few pages that I would be reading every book Mariás has written. All the Birds, Singing, by Evie Wyld This haunting, poetic novel manages to convey in a short space a great deal about compulsion and memory and the human capacity for good and evil. Wyld's narrator, Jake, is one of the most distinctive and sympathetic heroines in recent literature, a kind of Down Under Huck Finn. Her descriptions of the Australian outback are indelible. And the novel's backward-and-forward form manages a beautiful trick: it simultaneously dramatizes the effects of trauma and attends to our more literary hungers: for form, for style. It reminded me forcefully of another fine book that came out of the U.K. this year, Eimear McBride's A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing. Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, by Hilary Mantel I'd be embarrassed at my lateness to the Thomas Cromwell saga, were I not so glad to have finally made it. Mantel's a serious enough historical novelist not to shy away from those conventions of the genre that usually turn me off; the deliberate pacing of her trilogy-in-progress requires some getting used to. But more than a chronicler, Mantel is a novelist, full-stop. She excels at pretty much everything, and plays the long game brilliantly. By the time you get into the intrigues of Bring Up the Bodies, you're flying so fast you hardly notice the beautiful calibration of the prose, or the steady deepening of the psychology, or the big thoughts the novel is thinking about pragmatism and Englishness and gender and the mystery of personality. Dispatches, by Michael Herr If you took the horrific public-burning scene from Wolf Hall, multiplied that by 100, put those pages in a hot-boxed Tomahawk piloted by Dr. Strangelove, and attempted to read them over the blare of the Jefferson Airplane, you'd end up with something like Dispatches. It is simultaneously one of the greatest pieces of New Journalism I've ever read and one of the greatest pieces of war writing. Indeed, each achievement enables the other. The putatively embedded journalism of our own wars already looks dated by comparison. Since the publication of Dispatches in 1977, Herr's output has been slender, but I'd gladly read anything he wrote. White Girls, by Hilton Als This nonfiction collection casts its gaze all over the cultural map, from Flannery O'Connor to Michael Jackson, yet even more than most criticism, it adds up to a kind of diffracted autobiography. The longest piece in the book is devastating, the second-longest tough to penetrate, but this unevenness speaks to Als's virtues as an essayist. His sentences have a quality most magazine writing suffocates beneath a veneer of glibness: the quality of thinking. That is, he seems at once to have a definite point-of-view, passionately held, and to be very much a work in progress. It's hard to think of higher praise for a critic. Utopia or Bust, by Benjamin Kunkel This collection of sterling essays (many of them from the London Review of Books) covers work by David Graeber, Robert Brenner, Slavoj Zizek, and others, offering a state-of-the-union look at what used to be called political economy -- a nice complement to the research findings of Thomas Piketty. Kunkel is admirably unembarrassed by politics as such, and is equally admirable as an autodidact in the field of macroeconomics. He synthesizes from his subjects one of the more persuasive accounts you'll read about how we got into the mess we're in. And his writing has lucidity and wit. Of Fredric Jameson, for example, he remarks: "Not often in American writing since Henry James can there have been a mind displaying at once such tentativeness and force." The Origin of the Brunists, by Robert Coover The publication this spring of a gargantuan sequel, The Brunist Day of Wrath, gave me an excuse to go back and read Coover's first novel, from 48 years ago. As a fan of his midcareer highlights, The Public Burning and Pricksongs and Descants, I was expecting postmodern glitter. Instead I got something closer to William Faulkner: tradition and modernity collide in a mining town beset by religious fanaticism. Yet with the attenuation of formal daring comes an increased access to Coover's capacity for beauty, in which he excels many of his well-known peers. Despite its (inspired) misanthropy, this is a terrific novel. I couldn't help wishing, as I did with much of what I read this year, that my old man was still around, that I might recommend it to him, and so repay the debt. More from A Year in Reading 2014 Don't miss: A Year in Reading 2013, 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.
This August, not long before Labor Day, my wife and I packed the kids into the back of a rented car and left behind the garbage-smelling streets of New York for the comparative balm of Maine. For the second year running, we'd booked ourselves into a little bungalow about as far east as you can go before you drive into the ocean. This modest slice of paradise doesn't come cheap; a week's sublet costs only slightly less than our monthly rent. To my mind, though, it's worth it -- not least because the house's sun porch is my favorite place to read in the entire world. There, with the kids napping upstairs and the porch's old glass rippling the heavy-limbed spruces outside and the bees bumbling around in the hydrangeas and the occasional truck droning past on the two-lane, I can actually feel time passing. Moreover, I can choose to lavish a couple unbroken hours of it on a book, in a way life in the 21st-century metropolis (with small children!) renders vanishingly improbable. It's no surprise, then, that many of my best reading experiences of the last year were concentrated in that single week. Early on, I read for the first time Virginia Woolf's Orlando, and found in the wry lushness of its prose a perfect literary analogue for the sensory assault of high summer in a new place. In fact, the divide between the life of the senses and the life of the mind is one of the many barriers Woolf's intrepid hero/ine surmounts, "For it must be remembered that... [the Elizabethans] had none of our modern shame of book learning...no fancy that what we call 'life' and 'reality' are somehow connected with ignorance and brutality." I then devoured, in the course of two naptimes, Norman Rush's Subtle Bodies. Unlike its predecessors, Mating and Mortals, this novel has some glaring defects, and reviewers, by turns baffled and hostile, went straight for the invidious comparison. Yet what struck me was the through-line of Rush's sensibility. The supreme pleasures of all of his work (the characters, the loving irony, the human comedy) are present here, in spades, and that made Subtle Bodies feel like a gift. And just before returning to New York, I read, in a state of admiration bordering on envy, the brilliant first third of Rachel Kushner's The Flamethrowers. Probably the single most perfect book I encountered in 2013, though, appeared under completely different circumstances -- that is, in February, back in the city, amid the ice. Gertrude Stein's Three Lives didn't just reward my attention; it commanded it. To pick up the book was to be summoned away from the diced-up jumble of my own unfinished errands and brought into the presence of Anna and Melanctha and Lena. Reading Stein is like being brainwashed, but in a positive sense. It cleanses the windows of perception. It is Maine on the page. In fact, much of what moved me most in 2013 drew in one way or another on the Modernist legacy of "deep time," a countervailing force to the jump-cut, the click-through, the sample rate. I came to the reissue of Renata Adler's Pitch Dark, for example, expecting a kind of cool PoMo minimalism. Instead, I discovered a crypto-maximalist whose sentences, surfing along on volumes of unexpressed pain, are as perfect in their way as Woolf's. Péter Nádas's putatively maximalist Parallel Stories, meanwhile, offered the most miniaturist reckoning of behavioral psychology this side of...well, of Gertrude Stein. The erotic excesses everyone complains about -- e.g, the 300-page sex scene -- are in fact the opposite of erotic; they're a kind of clinical accounting of the physical side of human history, the flesh that has a mind of its own. "Unsubtle Bodies," would have been a good title. But in the end, I respected the hell out of Parallel Stories, and ended up despite myself -- despite, perhaps, even Nádas -- caring deeply about its characters. And then there was Laszlo Krasznahorkai. Where his first three novels to appear in English were dark, his latest, Seiobo There Below, is bright. Where they were terrestrial, it is astral. But in one important respect, it's just like them: it's a masterpiece. I know I tend to go on about the Hungarians, but this seemed to be a ridiculously rich year for American fiction, too. Fall, in particular, was a murderer's row of big books; I could talk here about Lethem, about Tartt, about Pynchon, about David Gilbert, about Caleb Crain, about James McBride's surprise National Book Award, but I'd like to put in a good word for a couple of books that came out in the early part of the year, and were perhaps overlooked. The first is William H. Gass's Middle C. Not only hasn't Gass lost a step at age 88; he's gained a register. One of Middle C's deep motifs involves an "Inhumanity Museum," but the surface here is warmer and funnier and more approachable than anything Gass has written since Omensetter's Luck. Fewer readers will have heard of Jonathan Callahan, whose first book, The Consummation of Dirk, was published in April by Starcherone Press. It's a multifariously ambitious story collection on the model of David Foster Wallace's Girl With Curious Hair. The glaring debts to Wallace and Krasznahorkai and Thomas Bernhard can be a liability, but in the longer stories here, including "A Gift" and "Cymbalta" and "Bob," and in the closing trio, Callahan uses the pressure of influence to form shapes entirely his own. On the poetry side, I adored Bernadette Mayer's rousing and funny collection, The Helens of Troy, New York. Meyer uses various quasi-Oulipian formal constraints to turn interviews with the titular Helens -- yes, every woman named Helen living in Troy, New York -- into poems. Both Helens and Troy emerge richer for the transformation. And while Patti Smith's Just Kids isn't technically verse, it makes good on every claim for Smith as one of the few true rock n' roll poets. (The late Lou Reed was another.) Not only is Just Kids an unmissable story; it attains the same purity of expression as Horses. Usually, rock writing is a kind of guilty pleasure. Unforgettable Fire, Glory Days... I feel absolutely no guilt, though, in recommending the English journalist Nick Kent's collection of rock profiles, The Dark Stuff. It's John Jeremiah Sullivan good. Gay Talese good. Sometimes it's even Joseph Mitchell good. I made it through a couple of other great works of narrative journalism this year, as well. William Finnegan, in addition to being one of my favorite New Yorker writers, has got to be one of the best reporters on earth, and his Cold New World, published in 1998, is like a Clinton-era companion to George Packer's The Unwinding. In it, Finnegan spends months with teenagers in four far-flung American communities, uncovering the frictions of the new economy long before it blew up in our faces. Robert Kolker's The Lost Girls, which came out this summer, similarly examines the effect of those frictions on young women drawn into prostitution -- specifically, five young women who would end up murdered by a serial killer out on Long Island. Kolker doesn't turn phrases with the acuity of Kent or Finnegan, but his patient unfolding of his story gives the reader room to become outraged. As usual, I find myself running on well beyond "Year in Reading" length. But in my defense: I hardly reviewed anything this year! This is my one chance to enthuse! And though I've talked about William Gass, and William Finnegan, what about William Styron's The Long March, or William T. Vollmann's Fathers & Crows? This is not to mention The Luminaries, which is currently sitting half-read on my nightstand, alongside The Cuckoo's Calling and The Bridge Over the Neroch and Teju Cole. My wife says it's starting to look like a hoarder lives here. How am I ever going to finish all this stuff? But I remain optimistic, against all the evidence, that life might offer a little more time to read in 2014. And if not, I suppose we'll always have Maine. 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.
Four years ago, in an attempt to help readers navigate the flood tide of Roberto Bolaño books appearing posthumously in English, we at The Millions put together a little syllabus. Little did we know how rash our promise to update "as further translations become available" would soon seem. Within two years, the release of six additional titles had rendered the first version nugatory. And since then, six more have become available. Indeed, it's hard to think of another figure in the history of weltliteratur whose catalogue has made it so quickly to these shores, or whose literary executors have been speedier - not to say more punctilious - in publishing his archive. Though Bolaño's imagination seems inexhaustible, it's hard not to greet the news of yet another "lost work" or "early work" or "lost early work" with fatigue. (Or even, given the overlap between certain editions, suspicion.) Yet the most recent publication, the poetry omnibus The Unknown University, is a major work, and should be the exclamation point at the end of the Bolaño boom. (Though there was that new story in The New Yorker a few weeks ago, so maybe Andrew Wylie knows something we don't... And there's always Advice from a Morrison Disciple to a Joyce Fanatic, co-written with A.G. Porta in 1984.) At any rate, this seems an opportune time to revisit, once and for all, our Bolaño syllabus, which has more than doubled in size since 2009. Where originally we arranged the list as a kind of guided tour, it seems most worthwhile at this point to divide the available work into tiers: what you need to read, what you might want to, and what you can pass over without losing sleep. The Essential 1. The Savage Detectives 2666 may be more admirable, but The Savage Detectives is more loveable (think Moby-Dick vs. Huckleberry Finn). As such, it's the Bolaño book I tend to urge on people first. Read The Savage Detectives all the way to the end, and you'll understand why one might want to try to read this writer's entire corpus. (See our review). 2. 2666 There is no other novel of the last decade that I think about more often, years after having read it. My enthusiastic take here now seems to me embarrassingly inadequate. A bona fide masterpiece. 3. Last Evenings on Earth The best, by a whisker, of the five collections of short fiction available in English - largely because New Directions can't have foreseen how big Bolaño was going to be, and so raided his Anagrama editions for the best stories. Highlights include "Dance Card," "Sensini," "The Grub," "Mauricio 'The Eye' Silva," and "Gomez Palacio." 4. The Return Another strikingly good collection, overlooked perhaps because of its appearance in 2010, when the Bolaño marketplace was already flooded. Between it and Last Evenings on Earth, you end up with the whole (I think) of the two collections published in Spanish during Bolaño's lifetime. I especially love the title story. And for those inclined to read the Bolaño oeuvre as a roman-fleuve, you get here the porny "Prefigurations of Lalo Cura." 5. Nazi Literature in the Americas This early "novel," a biographical encyclopedia of invented writers, offers our first glimpse of the ambition that would effloresce in the two big books. Not incidentally, it's an excellent introduction to Bolaño's peculiar sense of humor, which enjambs the absurd and the deadpan until it's hard to tell which is which. Come to think of it, it's probably his funniest book. (See our review). 6. Distant Star This is my favorite of Bolaño's short novels, and the other book I tend to recommend to neophytes. An expansion of a chapter in Nazi Literature, it yokes together two signature preoccupations: poetry and detectives. 7. The Unknown University This beautiful dual-language edition purports to include "all of the poems of the great Roberto Bolaño." Perhaps that should be "all of the great poems of Roberto Bolaño"; a quick comparison reveals some titles in The Romantic Dogs that I can't find here. But you get most of that collection, plus Tres, plus the novel in prose-poems Antwerp, as well as a couple hundred other poems. As with The Secret of Evil and Woes of the True Policemen, the "history of the book" Bolaño's executors provide here is weirdly hard to parse, but concerns fall away in the reading. At every turn there's a sense that this manuscript was indeed the life's work in poetry of a writer who valued poetry above all other genres. Verse narratives like "The Neochileans" have the impact of Bolaño's best short novels. The lyric poems lose more in Laura Healy's translation, especially as Bolaño likes to deal in fragments. As Jeff Peer noted here, the shorter pieces veer, albeit with a charming kind of indifference, between notebook and dream journal, genius and juvenilia. And because there are so many of these short poems, displayed one to a page, the book looks more tomelike than it is. Still, it is very much greater than the sum of its parts, and some of those parts are already very great indeed. The addictive element in Bolaño, more than anything else, is his sui generis sensibility, and this book is that sensibility distilled. 8. Between Parentheses For those of you keeping score at home, that's four genres Bolaño excelled in: the meganovel, the novella, the poem, and the short story. What are the odds that his collected nonfiction could be indispensable? Especially when most of it consists of occasional speeches and short newspaper work? Well, odds be damned. This book is great, in a way that reminds me of Jonathan Lethem's recent and similarly loose-limbed The Ecstasy of Influence. There's something fascinating about listening in as a writer talks shop, more or less off the cuff. Parts two through five do double-duty as an encyclopedia of Latin American fiction. And "Beach," actually a short story, is one of Bolaño's best. 9. By Night in Chile Bolaño's most formally perfect short novel, it is also the most self-contained. It offers a torrential dramatic monologue by a Catholic priest implicated in torture during Chile's U.S.-backed Pinochet era. Some readers I respect think this is his best book. Though it plays its source material straighter than is typical in Bolaño, it might be another good one for norteamericanos to start with. The Merely Excellent 1. The Third Reich This was another book that I thought got a bit lost in the shuffle of 2009-2011, when an astonishing 1,800 pages of Bolaño's prose made their way into English. Otherwise, it might have been recognized as one of the best novels published in English in the latter year. Certainly, it's the strongest of Bolaño's apprentice books. Here, the master seems to be David Lynch; all is atmosphere, atmosphere, atmosphere, as the failure of a plot to precipitate becomes itself a source of terrible foreboding. I'm also a sucker for the "visceral realism" of Natasha Wimmer's translations, though I can't speak to their accuracy. 2. Amulet Amulet on its own is a wonderful reworking of the Auxilio Lacouture monologue from The Savage Detectives, and a chance to get to spend more time with that book's presiding spirits, Ulises Lima and Arturo Belano. It also contains some of Bolaño's most bewitching sentences, including the one that seems to give 2666 its title: "Guerrero, at that time of night, is more like a cemetery than an avenue, not a cemetery in 1974 or 1968, or 1975, but a cemetery in the year 2666, a forgotten cemetery under the eyelid of a corpse or an unborn child, bathed in the dispassionate fluids of an eye that tried so hard to forget one particular thing that it ended up forgetting everything else." 3. The Insufferable Gaucho Here you get the sublime Kafka takeoff "Police Rat" and a sort of cover version of Borges's "The South," each approaching novella length. However, the decision to pair the five stories (a version of one of which also appears in Between Parentheses) with two (excellent) essays gives this collection as a whole a distinctly "odds and sods" feel. 4. The Secret of Evil Another posthumous gallimaufry, but one I found totally delightful. Notwithstanding the magician's indirection with which the "Preliminary Note" attempts to justify the book's publication, it's pretty clear that much of what's here is in rough form. But as with Between Parentheses, it's thrilling to see Bolaño at work, and to see where he might have gone next. And it's always nice to see a little more of Ulises and Arturo. 5. Antwerp One of Bolaño's earliest pieces of fiction, Antwerp's not much like the others, save for a hunchback who will also pop up in The Skating Rink. But it's one of the greatest avant-garde "novel in fragments" out there (see our review). In fact, as the inclusion in The Unknown University of a slightly different version (titled "People Walking Away") suggests, the prose here is close to poetry. So why "merely excellent" instead of "essential"? Well, if you already have a copy there, why buy the stand-alone version? 6. The Last Interview Like many non-Anglophone writers, Bolaño treated the interview less as a promotional opportunity than as a form of performance art. That makes this entry in Melville House's "Last Interview" series less illuminating, but also more fun, than it could have been. And of course the posthumous cash-in angle is right there in the title. In addition to Marcela Valdes's long and brilliant introduction - one of the best pieces of critical writing on Bolaño available in English - you get four interviews. Though caveat emptor: the actual last interview also shows up at the end of Between Parentheses, so again you may be paying for what was already yours to begin with. Necessary For Completists Only 1. Woes of the True Policeman There was a concerted effort to market this first as a "missing piece" of 2666, and then as a novel proper, but it's pretty clear that what Woes of the True Policeman truly is is an early stab at the big novel. The Amalfitano who appears here is a different character, but an equally deep one, and that and the rhetorical pyrotechics are the real selling points. (Am I the only person who finds the opening here really funny?) Still, aside from specialists and scholars, there's something a little unsettling about pretending that what the writer didn't think deserved our attention deserves our attention. Our review is here. 2. Monsieur Pain When the jacket copy for Keith Ridgway's forthcoming Hawthorn & Child calls it "the trippiest novel New Directions has published in years," it must mean three years - since this one came out. And damned if I can make heads or tails of old Mr. Bread. It concerns an ailing César Vallejo and some mysterious policemen...or something. Bolaño wrote this in the early '80s, and may have been surprised to be able to sell it to Anagrama in his breakthrough year, 1999. The most notable feature, for me, is formal: the "Epilogue for Voices" seems to anticipate the structural innovations of The Savage Detectives. 3. The Skating Rink More straightforward than Monsieur Pain, this early novel seems like another pass at the material in Antwerp/"People Walking Away." It's a quick, entertaining read, but for me the strange characterological magic that makes the voices in the later novels come alive never quite happens in this one. 4. The Romantic Dogs On its own, The Romantic Dogs is a fine collection. The same poem-to-poem unevenness that mars The Unknown University is present here, but because the selection tends toward the longer, more narrative poems, more of Bolaño makes it through the translation. Still, if much of what's here is included there, this edition would seem to have been superseded for all but the most ardent Bolañophiles. See also: Tres. 5. Tres See The Romantic Dogs.