A Year in Reading: Jacqueline Krass

This year I read not one, but two books about or by famous Russian male writers’ wives. If there are more of them, which I am certain there are, I would like to read those, too. The first one was Véra: Mrs. Vladimir Nabokov, and I found it via an interview with the writer, Stacy Schiff, in the Paris Review. She was discussing how difficult it was to write a book about someone who worked so hard to excise herself from a narrative—the narrative of her husband’s career, of his genius—and about the absence at the heart of this book about a woman who did not want to be found. Absence, presence, women—those are the words that set things off in my brain. Right away I ordered the book at my local bookstore, which was also at the time my place of employment, and although I do not usually read biographies I read this one and loved every page of it.

Then some other article somewhere sent me to Nadezdha Mandelstam’s brilliant, chilling, disturbing, insightful memoir, Hope Against Hope, and I wondered if I should devote my life to the study of books by famous Russian writers’ wives, because it was the best thing I’d read in a long long time. Nadezdha Mandelstam was married to Russian Jewish poet Osip Mandelstam, who died, under circumstances that were never revealed to Nadezdha, in a forced labor camp sometime in 1938. The account of life in Soviet Russia alone is devastating. But what struck me most about the book was the way Mandelstam watched and understood the people around her, her deep attention to the things that happen to individuals under totalitarian rule. One friend, she writes, “told me I should not allow anyone into the house unless I had known him all my life, to which I always replied that even such friends might have changed into something different. This is how we lived, and this is why we are not the same as other people.” One question this book begins to answer is: What does fear do, to individuals and to a society?

There are some connections to our own present moment that perhaps I do not need to spell out.

I also read some really good poetry this year: Morgan Parker’s fantastic Other People’s Comfort Keeps Me Up at Night; Tommy Pico’s ecstatic, hilarous Junk; Danez Smith’s ravenous [insert] boy; Natalie Eilbert’s Indictus, which I’ve been thinking about nonstop ever since (and talking about to just about everyone I know). I bought José Olivarez’s Citizen Illegal at his reading in Madison, Wisconsin, because of my boyfriend; I read Elif Batuman’s The Idiot (not poetry) and was embarrassed by how much I loved and related to it. (One underlined quote, which I then copied out into my notebook like a true adolescent: “I get that you despise convention, but you shouldn’t let it get to the point that you’re incapable of saying, ‘Fine, thanks,’ just because it isn’t an original, brilliant utterance.”)

And I read a pocket-sized selected edition of W.H. Auden all winter and into the spring, for comfort and for elucidation, in times of fear and uncertainty and devastating politics and flights cancelled due to Midwestern March snowstorms. Back in Brooklyn, at a strange moment of in-between-ness, I stumped up and down the perimeter of mostly frozen Prospect Park and recited Auden to myself. These two stanzas about birds and flowers, from “Their Lonely Betters,” particularly got to me:

Not one of them was capable of lying,There was not one which knew that it was dyingOr could have with a rhythm or a rhymeAssumed responsibility for time.Let them leave language to their lonely bettersWho count some days and long for certain letters;We, too, make noises when we laugh or weep:Words are for those with promises to keep.

More from A Year in Reading 2018

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2018’s Literary Geniuses

This year’s “Genius grant” winners have been announced. The MacArthur grant awards $625,000 “no strings attached” to “talented individuals who have shown extraordinary originality and dedication in their creative pursuits and a marked capacity for self-direction.” Alongside scientists, artists and scholars are some newly minted geniuses with a literary focus. This year’s literary geniuses are:

Natalie Diaz is a poet who connects her experiences as a Mojave American and Latina woman to cultural and mythological systems of belief and Indigenous love in America. Her first collection, When My Brother Was an Aztec (2012), focuses on her brother’s drug addiction and her childhood on the reservation. Manuel Gonzalez described the collection as “stellar” in his Year in Reading 2016, and Nick Ripatrazone, in his Must-Read Poetry 2018, said this about her poem, included in the New Poets of Native Nations (ed. Heid E. Erdrich): “And then there’s Natalie Diaz, who will stop you, sit you right up: “Native Americans make up less than / one percent of the population of America. / 0.8 percent of 100 percent. / O, mine efficient country.”

John Keene  is a translator and writer of fiction, poetry, and cultural criticism whose work includes Annotations (1995), a semi-autobiographical novel and essay collection about coming of age as a black, queer, middle-class child in 1970s and ’80s-era St. Louis, and Counternarratives (2015), a book of stories and novellas that Katrina Dodson described in her Year in Reading 2015 as a collection of “hypnotic, quasi-historical tales” jumping between various hubs of the New World in their examination of the legacies of slavery and colonialism. 

Kelly Link, short story writer, is described by the MacArthur Foundation as “pushing the boundaries of literary fiction in works that draw on genres such as fantasy, science fiction, and horror while also engaging fully with the concerns and emotional realism of contemporary life.” Her work includes Stranger Things Happen (2001), which Arthur Phillips described as “funny and bookish, charming and ghoulish, original even when she’s referential,” and Get in Trouble (2015), which was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. (You can read her conversation about it with Keith Lee Morris here.) In our interview with Link, she discussed the weirdness of the Florida landscape and the ways that writers’ particular strengths are the result of the way in which they see the world: “the things they notice, the kinds of rhythms or structures that they are drawn toward.” She runs Small Beer Press with her husband, Gavin Grant.

Dominique Morisseau is a playwright who has examined the complicated realities of urban black communities, most recently in her trilogy, The Detroit Project, inspired by August Wilson’s Century Cycle. The trilogy is composed of Detroit ’67 (2013), Paradise Blue (2015), and Skeleton Crew (2016), the last of which is set in an automotive stamping plant during the 2008 recession. In an interview with The Millions, Morisseau discussed her intention to “contribute a different Detroit narrative,” one in which its inhabitants appear as “more than sound bites.” Bill Morris described the ways in which “calamity is always hovering in Morisseau’s Detroit,” where the question “is how her Detroiters will retain their dignity and their humanity in the face of forces that yearn to crush them.”