History: A Novel

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A Year in Reading: Hisham Matar


I just finished writing a book on a month I spent in Siena. There are paintings there that have for a long time exacted a strange pull on me. The book, called A Month in Siena, is in part an attempt to think about why these pictures have fascinated me for so long. One of the best books I read on that period is Timothy Hyman’s Sienese Painting: The Art of a City-Republic. A London-based artist, Hyman is also a curator. He brings to his subject great sensitivity and learning.

During writing A Month in Siena I also read a few works on the Black Death, partly because that plague brought altered the world of art and ideas, and partly because it began to be clear to me how important death was to my book. I reread the 14-century Moroccan author and traveller Ibn Battuta. His marvelous book, A Gift to Those Who Contemplate the Wonders of Cities and the Marvels of Travel, I had adored with a passion as a child. I was unsettled once more by his evocative account of Damascus being taken over by death.

I have also had the privilege of reading Tears of Salt, Dr. Pietro Bartolo’s account of what we have come to call the “refugee crisis”, an inexact and offensive term given that the “crisis” is caused on to refugees and not by them. Dr. Bartolo runs the only medical clinic on the southern Italian island of Lampedusa where men, women and children fleeing war, oppression and unemployment risk their lives to reach. The privilege is due to Dr. Bartolo’s ability to bring to the heated subject his a broad and moving humanity. He is a man who feels and attends to the world about him.

This has been in the main a year of rereading. I reread the works of Joseph Conrad in preparation for Columbia University’s Edward Said Memorial Lecture, which I had the honored to deliver this year. I focused my attention on the Palestinian-American critic and thinker’s intellectual, psychological and emotional relationship to Conrad, the Polish nobleman who turned seaman and then became an English novelist. Said’s first book was on Conrad’s work and for the four decades that followed he never really stopped writing about him. The experience has left me in deeper admiration of Said and even more enthusiastic for Conrad’s work. There are passages where Conrad soars to the greatest heights, but even when he vanishes, as sometimes he seems to do, into a thick wood, I wanted to remain with him. If you have never read him before then perhaps start with the short stories—”Amy Foster” and “The Secret Sharer” are both, and for different reasons, utterly compelling—or, of course, his magisterial Heart of Darkness. And if you have read him then you might not have come across one of his lesser-known novellas, The Return, published by Hesperus with a forward by Colm Tóibín.

But this year has also been a year of discoveries. For example, I did not know the works of the American poet A.R. Ammons. I am grateful to Christian Wiman’s excellent poetry anthology Joy: 100 Poems for introducing me to Ammons’ luminous poem “The City Limits.” I immediately went and bought Norton’s The Complete Poems of A.R. Ammons, published in two thick volumes, each over a thousand pages long, and I have been gradually making my way through this unusually prolific but careful poet who appears to have been as scrupulous as he was unhindered.

A literary giant that I had somehow never read till this year is Elsa Morante. Her History: A Novel left me moved and immensely impressed. It is about how the politics, will, and whim of men impact the ordinary lives of women, men, and children. The fact that this isn’t recognized for what it is, a magisterial work and a 20th-century masterpiece, makes me even more anxious about our times.

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A Year in Reading: John Darnielle

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So, see here. You’ve offered me the chance to give one book a little extra shine by publishing my thoughts about it. It’s a basic building block of my character to want to big-up something that may’ve gotten less attention than I felt it deserved, and I also tend to reach for something non-recent when asked for a recommendation. Recent stuff everybody can already hear about through all the usual channels.

So while William Gass’s Middle C was probably the most eventful read for me this year — a new novel (2013, anyway) by one of the two or three best writers living, one as good as anything he’s written — the book I want to tell you about is Elsa Morante’s History: A Novel, which I finished near the beginning of the year. I learned about Morante through Open Letter, a translation house in Rochester that published Aracoeli, her astonishing last novel. It’s dark and thorny; History is quite different, tracking the lives of a mother and her son through the rise and fall of the fascist era in Italy. It is all heart — sometimes a little too much (there are maudlin moments here and there), but the characters are so lovingly drawn, the scenes so richly sketched, the moments so vividly conjured, that I ended up loving even the flaws. Morante’s vision is sweeping — that title, for a book essentially about two people’s insignificant interface with local and human history! — and specific; her identification with the central characters, Ida and Giuseppe, seems so deeply felt — it’s the sort of book one finishes and immediately feels certain even the middling scenes will stick in one’s mind for years. Giuseppe’s friendship with the poet/junkie/dreamer Davide, for example — there’s something so gorgeous in it, so illustrative of the way people take different things from the same experience. Davide is marginal, both in life and to the story…and yet, he breathes, he bleeds.

It’s a big book, by design — it’s trying to accomplish rather a lot. I’m not sure how successful it is all the time, but I know that I’ll remember its characters forever, and the moments that meant the most to them are, for me, instructive: Ida’s thirst for a better world for her son, Giuseppe’s fierce love for those who’ve proven friends to him. I don’t say “read this!” about a lot of things that I read, because I read a lot of odd things that not everybody would like. But it’s hard for me to imagine a reader coming away from History: A Novel unmoved.

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