Few of the books I read this year have touched me as deeply as Alyson Hagy’s Scribe. Eventually, after blackening almost every sentence with underlines and every margin with exclamation marks, I had to give up highlighting the passages I found remarkable. This is an untamed, unlit, unforgiving book—which makes its relentless beauty all the more impressive.
This was the year when I finally read William Gaddis’s The Recognitions. I have always been interested in aesthetics, and Gaddis gives wonderfully diagonal and opaque answers to the eternal questions about representation, originality, and how personal expression struggles to make its way through historically sedimented forms and materials. Also, I love loners, and Wyatt Gwyon is Arctically alone. Then, there is the prose. A few chapters into the book, I found myself creating a document that collected Gaddis’s descriptions of skies. (Bonus: the Dalkey Archive edition features an intense introduction by William Gass.)
Being obsessed with P. G. Wodehouse, Max Beerbohm, and, to a lesser degree, other British parodists from that general era, I am surprised to have come to the Mitford sisters only this year. But more than with Nancy, my heart is with Jessica. I simply loved Hons and Rebels, and for a whole weekend I annoyed everyone around me by sharing passages made totally unintelligible by my fits of laughter. Many events in the book are genuinely horrifying and heart-wrenching: two of her sisters’—Diana and Unity Valkyrie (yes, that’s right: Unity Valkyrie)—ties to Nazism, the terrors of the Spanish Civil War, the death of Jessica’s first baby… Still, when it comes to family dynamics and politics, Mitford keeps a Wodehousian stiff upper lip that exposes their ultimate absurdity.
I have been reading a lot of Theodore Dreiser, and I am almost done with the Trilogy of Desire, of which, I believe, only the first volume, The Financier, is still in print. I can’t say I am enjoying the writing or the general architecture of the novels, but I think they are helping me to understand American realism (and America) a little better.
About a year ago, Mandy Medley, Coffee House Press publicist and fanatical Scandophile, told me to read Elisabeth Rynell’s To Mervas. I did, although it took me a very long time. The novel—which narrates a recluse’s impossible journey to find the great love of her life, who sends her an enigmatic letter after decades of absence—is almost physically depressing: After a few pages, the weight would become too much, forcing me to put the book aside for days. The result was an extended read that, in a way, mimicked the protagonist’s trip. I know this doesn’t sound like a recommendation. But it is.
Briefly, in the 19th century, a strong taxonomical drive in science coincided with the diametrically opposed experience of the sublime the Romantics found in nature. I suppose both were, in their own way, totalizing impulses—the former was systematic and detached, the latter transcendental and rhapsodic. But these opposites came together in the short-lived figure of the naturalist. And yet, in the 20th century, Loren Eiseley brought to the cosmos the same sense of awe his predecessors had for far-away lands. I don’t ever want to finish the double volume of his Collected Essays on Evolution, Nature, and the Cosmos. These are texts by a true polymath and, above all, one of the greatest stylists I have read in a long time. It was fortunate that I was late to come to Eisley: earlier, his influence would have been paralyzing.
Eisley was one of our most eloquent environmentalists, and it was quite an experience to read his work almost in conjunction with Lauren Groff’s latest book. Florida addresses the urgent dangers posed by climate change but does so without falling into the didacticism that often characterizes “engaged” literature. Groff can create a reality, down to the last detail, only to shatter it in the most brutal, gorgeous ways, showing us that our world is a fragile construct besieged by forces over which we have no control—among them, increasingly, the rightful revenge of nature. The range of the prose is striking: from transcriptions of the barely audible murmurs of a conscience to the deafening roars of apocalyptic storms.
Describing one of Diane Williams’s stories inevitably takes more words than those in the story itself. And there is something equally wonderful about the dissonance between the sheer size of the megalithic Collected Stories of Diane Williams and the conciseness of the perplexing, beautiful texts within. I have always been drawn to books that can be opened at random and still provide a full reading experience. This volume is that and more. It reminds me of Borges’s book of sand, which has neither a beginning nor an end because its pages multiply infinitely as one turns them.
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