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A Year in Reading: Lisa Halliday

It has been a year of reading in fits and starts, indeed of doing everything in fits and starts, fits and starts being the general run of things when you have a baby.

For articles I was writing, I happily revisited passages from several books, including:

 

 

Little Women
Elizabeth Costello
The Garden of Eden
Tropic of Capricorn
Bartleby & Co.
A Sport and a Pastime
Yann Andréa Steiner
NW
To the Back of Beyond
Charlotte’s Web

For my next novel, I read bits of books about fathers, including letters between Wolfgang and Leopold Mozart; books about Italians, including Luce D’Eramo’s Deviation; and books about conspiracy theories and “the power of the lie,” including David Aaronovitch’s Voodoo Histories, Rob Brotherton’s Suspicious Minds, Hans Rosling’s Factfulness, and a timely new anthology entitled Orwell on Truth.

I read books that were sent to me, including Free Woman by Lara Feigel and the forthcoming Such Good Work by Johannes Lichtman. In preparation for events, I read Kevin Powers’s A Shout in the Ruins, Aminatta Forna’s Happiness, Gertrude Stein’s The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, Aja Gabel’s The Ensemble, and Kim Fu’s The Lost Girls of Camp Forevermore. Each made me grateful for the forces that delivered it over my transom.

In London I read Sally Rooney’s absorbing Conversations with Friends while my daughter patiently paged through an old copy of The Cricket Caricatures of John Ireland.

In Tobermory I read about the history of lighthouses and Robert Louis Stevenson’s Kidnapped in The Cicerone Guide to Walking on The Isle of Mull.

On a flight from San Francisco to Boston I read Nick Drnaso’s Sabrina and wished it were twice as long.

On Thanksgiving I read Updike: Novels 1959-1965, including the biographical chronology at the end, marveling at a prolificacy I think only Simenon outmatched.

I read The New York Times, most avidly the obituaries, which are like little novels.

I read The New Yorker. I also listened to The New Yorker, and to Jeremy Black’s A Brief History of Italy, and Hermione Hoby’s Neon in Daylight, because of course listening is a way of reading when your hands and eyes are otherwise occupied.

 

I read books about motherhood, including the Sebaldian Sight, by Jessie Greengrass; And Now We Have Everything, by Meaghan O’Connell; and too many books about how to get your baby to sleep, none of which helped except for the one that asked me to consider what kind of memories of my daughter’s infancy I would like to have.

I re-read Strunk & White.

I read What’s Going on in There?: How the Brain and Mind Develop in the First Five Years of Life, which Philip Roth sent me 40 days before he died.

 

And, with my daughter in my lap, I read many more books, most of them multiple times, including Il flauto magico, One White Rabbit, The Range Eternal, Where’s Mr. Lion?, Giochiamo a nascondino!, Pinocchio, Biancaneve, Good Night, Red Sox, and an especially treasured box set illustrated by the late artist Leo Lionni: Due topolini curiosi, whose cover features a duly curious little mouse with her whiskers buried in a book.

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A Year in Reading: Garth Risk Hallberg

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.

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A Year in Reading: Claire-Louise Bennett

I have been a terrible reader this year, demanding the impossible — I wanted to experience the same tumult and sting of feelings I encountered when I read classic books for the first time, around the age of 16. There are many different reading modes and naturally I frequently read as a writer so as to augment my sense of what is possible formally — I am fascinated by unorthodox structuring methods — but I am only a writer when I am writing and for much of this year I was not writing a great deal, and so I read with a deeper more personal hunger. I wanted to be moved, stirred, disturbed, shaken, perhaps even turned on a little. And so during a trip to Paris in spring, I picked up five books by Anaïs Nin and was for several weeks cast out in an unmoored realm of trenchant lust and forensic self-scrutiny as Nin’s novels charted her decadent quest to overthrow the boundaries of personality through a tantalizing series of choppy sexual encounters. For Nin, any kind of stability was deadly — “When I am most deeply rooted, I feel the wildest desire to uproot myself” — and yet I’d be reluctant to describe her deracinating tendencies as reckless or self-destructive. Insatiable, certainly, but that doesn’t imply that Nin was not in possession of a finely-tuned sensitivity and an acute sense of love, her writing attests to both superbly, and magnanimously — Nin is nothing if not generous — and so, despite my not quite having gone to the fleshly extremes she went to, her uninhibited prose recognizes and delineates that strange ineffable ache that from time to time dumbly echoes in the very pit of me. The frequency with which I underlined the most resonant sentences increased the further into whichever book I went, as if the process of reading gradually effected a reciprocal divestment of shame so that I became more willing to admit and highlight uncomfortable affinities. At the end of Henry and June Nin writes “I wept because I was no longer a child with a child’s blind faith…I wept because I could not believe anymore and I love to believe…I wept because I have lost my pain and I am not yet accustomed to its absence.” At around the same time, I was writing a story in which the narrator confesses, “My heart is no longer immersed and the mornings come like frigid air, stinging my unconsumed heart into rude awareness.” When books are selected in order to loosen an intrinsic deadlock, the most exquisite and searing simultaneities often arise — there it was again, that same paradoxical suffering, intravenous and estranged, in a very short piece titled “Such Gentleness” by Clarice Lispector; “I am a bit disoriented as if a heart had been torn from me, and in its place were now the sudden absence, an almost palpable absence of what before was an organ bathed in the darkness of pain.” I like to read Lispector’s stories aloud because it is inside the mouth that the import of her rhizomatic sentences is best released and absorbed. This imbibing approach was also very effective when it came to taking in Raduan Nassar’s Ancient Tillage, a full-bodied short novel that evokes the calamitous sexual awakening of André — “I was absolutely certain my body had been carved out to receive the devil himself”– a young man growing up on a farm in Brazil. Here is another individual sensually ablaze and pitted against carnal thresholds; for André the passage across is supported but mostly thwarted by fluctuating spiritual, familial, physical, and agrarian injunctions — distinct and demanding forces that Nassar channels and conflates with such power and prowess that the prose practically attains to the shamanic in several places. It shook me to the core. Following on from this, I entered into “Green, bourgeoise France,” the location for James Salter’s A Sport and a Pastime. The story of a love affair told by an onlooking collector of photographs, the prose here flickers with observations and impressions, “as if a huge deck of images is being shuffled. After this will come the trick.” A fair warning: the narrator, by his own admission, is not entirely reliable; “I am only putting down details which entered me, fragments that were able to part my flesh.” Pulsing, suspended, slowly perilous, the details of these erotic fragments seamlessly entwine the fanciful with the ordinary, as this particularly well-compressed couplet illustrates, “Aureate light is reflected from the ceiling. He has a hard-on he is sure will never disappear.”

In order to address the fact that for much of the year I wasn’t writing a great deal, I spent the best part of autumn on a residency in Italy. It was here I came across Enrique Vila-Matas’s book Bartleby and Co., a book that every writer retreat should have multiple copies of upon its shelves, not least because its subject is antithetical to the purposes of a residency. Bartleby is the law-copyist from Herman Melville’s short story “Bartleby the Scrivener,” who, for reasons never ascertained, responds to his employer’s increasingly exasperated demands by saying “I would prefer not to.” From this one instance of flat refusal Vila-Matas develops a worldly compendium of writers who can’t or won’t write and thus builds up a composite and compelling case for not putting pen to paper, which was a delight to peruse while on a writing residency — not getting down to work was no longer strictly attributable to lily-livered indolence but perhaps indicated a vital and sophisticated caesura. Vila-Matas’s examples introduced me to an extraordinary array of work, including a very fine piece by Hugo von Hofmannsthal, “The Letter of Lord Chandos.” In this fictional missive addressed to Francis Bacon, Philip Chandos explains, with somewhat self-refuting erudition, why he has abandoned all literary endeavors; “My case, in short, is this: I have lost completely the ability to think or to speak of anything coherently.” This dire incapacity isn’t due to Chandos losing his mind, on the contrary, it would seem his mind is all too present and mercilessly impressed upon by uncontained stimuli; “my mind compelled me to view all things occurring in such conversations from an uncanny closeness…For me everything disintegrated into parts; no longer would anything let itself be encompassed by one idea.” Chandos no longer perceives the world as a unifying whole and its disintegration has induced an enhanced state of consciousness, and empathy, but at the cost of a loss of faith in language. The same paradox might also have afflicted the narrator of Roger Lewinter’s The Attraction of Things, a recently translated work, which, in the author’s own words, tells “the story of a being who lets himself go toward what attracts him, toward what he attracts…” The various encounters with “beings, works, things” are also viewed from “an uncanny closeness,” but Lewinter bypasses the oppressive difficulty of linguistic representation with a sinuous syntax that is up to the task of calibrating and enacting the intricacies of an atomized reality. Consequently the process of putting life into words does not lead to a void, as it does with Chandos, but towards moments of tranquil illumination. Indeed, the sensation of Lewinter’s prose upon one’s eyes is not dissimilar to looking across at the sun through overlapping branches of thin bright leaves.

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A Year in Reading: Sofia Samatar

This was a year of books of marvelous disappearance. I began with Bartleby & Co. by Enrique Vila-Matas, translated by Jonathan Dunne: a catalogue of vanished writers that is also a paradoxical and seductive manifesto for the “literature of the No.” I read Haytham El-Wardany’s How to Disappear, translated by Jennifer Peterson and Robin Moger: a sustained immersion in sonic detail, in the endless sound of the city, that uses the form of a self-help book to explore alienation and failure. That probably sounds depressing, but in fact it’s exhilarating! So is Joanna Walsh’s Hotel, a small dense meteorite of a book about disappearing from home, womanhood, and even language. So is Dodie Bellamy’s essay collection When the Sick Rule the World, in which entire neighborhoods have vanished.

An uncanny year. I read, for the first time, Renata Adler’s Pitch Dark, with its wonderfully creepy long central chapter, the narrator escaping — from what, she doesn’t exactly know — across a dark Irish landscape that hums with paranoia. I reread Alain-Fournier’s The Wanderer in the old Françoise Delisle translation, which I think is supposed to be a bad translation, but I really love it: that weird children’s party, the simultaneous sense of carnival and threat, and then, of course, the disappearance, the lost love. I was privileged to read, in advance of publication, Kate Zambreno’s incredibly tender Book of Mutter, forthcoming from Semiotext(e) in 2017: a book about art and grief and how both create strange loops in time. I read Renee Gladman’s Calamities, which is really about appearance, not disappearance — the appearance of writing, the appearance of drawing — but still has a profoundly ghostly feel. It’s like a book of spells: so focused on the desire to conjure something, it becomes the song of what isn’t there.

I read, for the first time, Roland Barthes’s lectures on The Neutral, translated by Rosalind E. Krauss and Denis Hollier. How fantastic to think about a kind of disappearance that isn’t negative, but bubbles up like champagne foam! I read again, because I can’t stop reading it, Bhanu Kapil’s lush and harrowing Ban en Banlieue, in which a girl stops, evanesces, lies down on a sidewalk forever. I read Ashon Crawley’s Blackpentecostal Breath: The Aesthetics of Possibility, which is about being sent, transported, about black church practices that cannot be owned but only collectively produced, that must be given away. This too is a kind of disappearance: an ecstatic dissolving of the subject so that a collectivity can come into being. In the communal shout, in the moan, one is no longer one but part of “an unbroken circle, a critical sociality of intense feeling.”

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Fleeing Forward: On César Aira’s Varamo

César Aira is probably as known for the sheer volume of his literary output as he is for any individual masterpiece in his immense oeuvre. Aira publishes an average of two novels a year, in a career that has produced over 70 books, a staggering feat of perpetual fecundity. His newly translated novella Varamo takes place over the course of one evening in 1923, and follows the exploits of a government worker in Panama. After leaving his office with a pair of counterfeit bills received as his monthly salary, the novel’s eponymous character, through a series of uncanny circumstances that stem from the anxiety that the possession of the counterfeit currency engenders, ends up writing, in the hours before dawn, “that celebrated masterpiece of modern Central American poetry, The Song of the Virgin Boy.”

Like some of those fabricated writers pulled from the South American air by Roberto Bolaño in Nazi Literature in the Americas or those fictional Bartleby’s that Spanish novelist Enrique Vila-Matas created to accompany the real writers who preferred not to in Bartleby & Co., Aira’s Varamo has a story that seems too good to be true, and is. Varamo is a Kafkaesque civil servant and, in his spare time, an amateur embalmer — but one thing he is not is a writer, for “never, in all his fifty years, had he written or felt any inclination to write a single line of poetry, nor would he ever again.” Though Varamo only creates one work of art, he does so feverishly, over the course of that evening, and thus embodies, if not Aira’s unending output, at least his method of fuga hacia adelante (which roughly translates to: “fleeing forward”).

Aira’s fuga hacia adelante technique is a method of writing that avoids revision. What he has written remains, and the next day’s task is to take what he wrote the previous day, and, whatever box he has written himself into, improvise a way out of by fleeing forward through propulsive improvisation. This concept of improvisation is central to Aira’s work, and takes a thematic forefront in Varamo:

Intending to be natural was, in itself, contradictory and self-defeating. In his case, it was condemned to failure from the outset, because if he intended to improvise his course of action, he would have to act as if he were really improvising, and at the same time he would, also, really be improvising, which was no more feasible than moving in two opposite directions at the same time.

This is precisely what Varamo does: it moves in two opposite directions at the same time. The titular character’s inspired night, which begins, as only an Aira novel could, with counterfeit bills and an undead fish, and ends with an avant-garde poem, reads as an explication of the fuga hacia adelante method:

In the interval between that moment and the dawn of the following day, ten or twelve hours later, he completed the composition of a long poem, from the initial decision to write it up to the final period, after which there were no further additions or corrections.

And yet, throughout the book, it becomes obvious that Aira is not merely using Varamo’s story as a guidebook describing his literary method, but rather that Aira is mocking these radical ideas of textual production in the same sentences in which he is defending them.

In addition to this complicated two-way view of textual production, Aira also posits an equivalent muddle of interpretative technique. As an improvised and counterfeit example of literary criticism (of a non-existent text by a fabricated writer), Varamo idealizes the notion that a true account of the producing mind can be discovered through a thorough reading of the text which that mind produced. Halfway into the 88-page novella, the narrator embarks on a lengthy aside, proclaiming that Varamo is “a work of literary history, not a fiction,” and explaining why the “free indirect style” is useful in his presentation of the “facts” of that evening in Varamo’s life:

But our invasion of Varamo’s consciousness is not magical or even imaginative or hypothetical. It is a historical reconstruction. The difference is that we have presented it backwards, starting with the final results of our research. All the circumstantial details with which we have been coloring the story of the character’s day and making it credible have been deduced (in the most rigorous sense of the word) from the poem that he finally wrote, which is the only document that has survived.

However, the obvious impossibility and imprecision of such a herculean task undermines this proposition, and instead of critical sincerity, humor pervades the pages. After all, how could it be that “all the critic has to do is translate each verse, each word, backwards, into the particle of reality from which it sprang?” Could a “true” history ever be created through interpretation by working backwards, into the particle of reality from which it sprang? It depends on a definition of the word “true,” as later a definition of the word “realism” becomes important in an interpretation of Varamo as well.

Jorge Luis Borges and (Aira’s mentor) Osvaldo Lamborghini are the touchstones here, of course, but the most interesting influence may be found in the way the writing of Polish émigré Witold Gombrowicz, who lived nearly half his life in Aira’s home country of Argentina, sneaks into Aira’s internal landscapes. A reimagined Gombrowiczian obsessional fantasy underpins Aira’s Varamo. Bolaño, who called Aira “one of the three or four best writers working in Spanish today,” also saw this Gombrowicz connection, writing: “His novels seem to put the theories of Gombrowicz into practice, except, and the difference is fundamental, that Gombrowicz was the abbot of a luxurious imaginary monastery, while Aira is a nun or novice among the Discalced Carmelites of the Word.”

Varamo has been cast as a lesser work in relation to some of the other Aira already in English translation — namely How I Became a Nun and An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter — and though this may be true, to overlook Varamo would be a mistake.

As other great Spanish-language writers like Borges, Bolaño, and Vila-Matas have done, Aira shapes new worlds with his fiction — but he does this in a unique style that is full of infinite possibility. As is written in Varamo, “Everything was possible, as in a world about to take shape.” Aira sees the world, and reality, in his own idiosyncratic way, and fashions the worlds of his books through the filter of that perspective, but as with all great writing, there is still an important component connecting it to reality, to “realism.” Though something like “free indirect discourse” may seem like a move toward the “magical,” and away from conventional realism, it is merely an attempt to get at a “truer” reality. This is the kind of “realism” we find in the novels of César Aira:

Perhaps, said one, “the time has come for realism.” The other two disagreed vehemently: the time for realism would never come. To which the reply, and here they were all in agreement again, was that it depended on how realism was defined. The time for realism in that sense (to be defined) was always now.

A Year in Reading: Scott Esposito

Scott Esposito is the editor of The Quarterly Conversation and the host of the literary blog Conversational Reading. His writing on books has appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, The Philadelphia Inquirer, The Chattahoochee Review, and the Rain Taxi Review ofBooks, among others.I’m a big advocate of the test of time – often I’m favorably impressed by a book right when I finish, but in the ensuing weeks and months, when I have a chance to look back through a book and see how it ages in my mind, many books that I once thought were good begin to lose their luster. So, in order that you can attach the proper grains of salt to each pick, I’m going to do my favorites for 2007 in the order in which I read them.Chris Adrian’s The Children’s Hospital, the third book I read, reads like a grand old mannered novel that got stuck with a 21st-century premise: there’s a new Biblical Flood, and all that survives is a children’s hospital. The story unfolds as the staff and the tiny patients figure out what God has in store for them. If this sounds overly religious and fantastic, it isn’t – Adrian builds amazingly realistic characters while telling a tale that, although it certainly includes elements of fantasy, should satisfy any devoted realist. Adrian’s an amazing talent, and for more info, read my review of this book.A couple books later I read what might be my very favorite novel of the past few years: Life: A User’s Manual by Georges Perec. This novel simply describes the rooms in a Paris apartment building, but in these descriptions Perec ranges all over the world, telling all kinds of amazing, intricately crafted stories. The whole book is too complex and well-built to ever do justice to in a small paragraph like this – so, please, just read it.At number 15 is The Savage Detectives, another book composed of discreet, story-type units. This book is generally agreed to be Roberto Bolano’s masterpiece (either that or the never-completed 2666), and in it Bolano simply traces the lives of two poet-youths as they and their forgotten generation age. Though the book is innovative and stylistically challenging, it still delivers realistic characters and deep emotion.About ten down we come to Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian and the first book of Proust, both of which I won’t bother to write about as readers probably know about them already, and then at 28 Raymond Queneau’s Witch Grass, a wonderful, playful book that one might legitimately say is about “nothing.” Some have said that this is Queneau’s gloss, in novel form, of Descartes’ “I think, therefore I am,” but regardless of how you interpret it, this is a plain old joyful read, as Queneau’s prose is continually fresh and entertaining. In my blog, I wrote a little about it.At 36 is Austen’s Sense and Sensibility, which made me wish I had read her earlier; Edith Wharton’s Age of Innocence follows at 37. Then we get onto some works of criticism: Northrop Frye’s Anatomy of Criticism, in which he lays out his famous theory of myths and tries to pin down the basic kinds of stories people tell. Though this book is sometimes dense, there’s a lot here, and it certainly changed the way I looked at narratives. A little after that I read Wayne Booth’s The Rhetoric of Fiction, in which he looks at how works of fiction are built. As erudite as this book is, it’s highly readable; Booth meant this as the definitive book on rhetoric in fiction, and though he tried to bite off more than he (or probably anyone) could chew, this is about as good an attempt as you’re going to get.After that I dipped into a little Spanish, reading Cesar Aira’s How I Became a Nun and Enrique Vila-Matas’s Bartleby & Co. The Aira is a subversively funny work about a little boy (or is it girl?) who has a completely crazy experience when his father takes him out for his first taste of ice cream; the Vila-Matas is an un-novel that is composed entirely of footnotes to a book never written about writers who stopped writing. It’s a very clever book that transcends mere cleverness, and for more about Vila-Matas, whom I think is an amazing writer, have a look at my essay on him.After that there was Iris Murdoch’s masterful The Sea, the Sea, which I blogged about. In Patagonia by Bruce Chatwin, the unforgettable Tristram Shandy, Alex Ross’s fine overview of 20th-century classical music, The Rest Is Noise, George Eliot’s Middlemarch (which I can’t recommend highly enough), and, most recently, the Renaissance work of 100 stories, The Decameron by Giovanni Boccaccio.Though the last was written in the 14th century and may seem a little old and musty, I hope people give it a look. These stories are clinics in how to compose a short work of fiction, and reading them compared to something written by a more contemporary author is as refreshing as listing to a Bach sonata after taking in a symphony by Shostakovich. Moreover, these are just plain fun – Boccaccio’s swipes at the church make you realize that people always have, and always will, have axes to grind with politicians and those in power, and his stories are bawdy enough to make you laugh out loud at his boldness.More from A Year in Reading 2007

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