I’ve spent much of this year writing a novel, which I expected would have a big impact on my reading habits. But apart from some research assignments—a lot of recent Russian history and a few books about Berlin—I pretty much went on as I normally do, reading a mixture of books that I had to for review, and others I felt a sudden compulsion to pick up in order to postpone reading anything with a deadline attached to it.
At the beginning of the year I wrote about Denis Johnson’s posthumous story collection The Largesse of the Sea Maiden, which I think is a capital G, capital B Great Book about death. I’ve read Jesus’ Son multiple times since it rewired my brain in the summer of 1993, but this assignment gave me an opportunity to dig in to his whole body of work: the poetry, the plays, the reportage and all those fascinating novels. He could have done the same thing over and over and people would have lapped it up, but it’s striking just how varied a body of work he produced.
I read some of the short fiction of Gerald Murnane, which has been collected in Stream System. Like all his work, it represents another facet of the same project all his work is engaged in furthering: the mapping, in intensive and idiosyncratic detail, of a single (and singular) consciousness. If you haven’t read Mark Binelli’s extraordinarily entertaining Times profile of him, do so at once.
I read Chekhov’s story “Gusev” a couple of times for something I was writing. I don’t know how many times I’ve read it altogether—maybe 10?—but I can never remember it whole; there’s always some part of it that presents itself as new, or that I register in a way I never registered it before. There are so many Chekhov stories I haven’t read but I seem to keep going back to the same ones, either because they’re inexhaustible or I have a terrible memory. E.M. Forster had a good line about not ever being able to remember what happens in Chekhov’s stories, but I’ve forgotten what it is.
Someone, and I’m afraid I have genuinely forgotten who it was, recommended a Heinrich Böll story from 1955 called “Mürke’s Collected Silences” to me (and I can’t recall who translated my edition, either; apologies, translation community). It’s about fascism, guilt and belief, and joins Krapp’s Last Tape in the pantheon of great works involving tape editing.
I guzzled Rachel Cusk’s Outline trilogy, and then reread the final book, Kudos, when I reviewed it alongside volume six of Knausgaard’s My Struggle (translated by Don Bartlett and Martin Aitken). I’m someone who found pretty much all of Knausgaard’s sequence compelling, even volumes three and four, where I think a lot of readers drop away. But it was only during the 400-page “essay” on Hitler in the new book that I got really bogged down. It’s an enormously tedious misstep that should have been cut, or at least significantly reduced in size (I mean, the book would still be 800 pages without it). But while there are many passages in the Knausgaard that I will undoubtedly return to, it’s Cusk’s trilogy that will, I think, continue to generate fresh meanings on repeated readings. Not that it’s a competition, but the two projects are so interestingly intertwined (Cusk was inspired to write her three novels after reading Knausgaard; he appears in Kudos transformed into a lugubrious Portuguese novelist) that it’s hard not to consider them alongside one another.
I read and loved Sheila Heti’s Motherhood, Sally Rooney’s Normal People and Rachel Kushner’s The Mars Room, the last of which kept me absorbed, and by virtue of that sane, for four hours’ standing on a packed train from Scotland to London on the last day of the Edinburgh Festival. I read Emmanuel Carrère’s The Adversary, which is as amazing as everybody who’s read it always says it is. I reread some Alice Munro (“Differently” and “Fits”), and I read Seven Years by Peter Stamm because I’d somehow heard that it’s a great Berlin novel—this despite the fact that it’s set entirely in Munich. Oh well, it’s all Germany I guess.
This year, as every year, I bought many more books than I read. Some of them will probably still be unread when I die, but not all of them.
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This year we lost a Nobel laureate, several Pulitzer Prize winners, many writers with wide readerships, and many more who never achieved the acclaim or the audiences they deserved. Happily for them all, their books live on.
C.D. Wright’s poetry was grounded in her native Arkansas — she called her early style “idiom Ozarkia” — but her work broke so many boundaries and wandered so freely that she belonged, in the words of the poet Joel Brouwer, “to a school of exactly one.” Wright, who died on Jan. 12 at 67, wrote that her poems were about “desire, conflict, the dearth of justice for all. About persons of small means.” Some of those persons were inmates she interviewed in Louisiana prisons, who inspired these lines:
AC or DC
You want to be Westinghoused or Edisoned
Your pick you’re the one condemned
Tennessee’s retired chair available on eBay.
In an autobiographical prose poem from 2005, Wright, a MacArthur fellow and winner of the Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award, wrote this of herself: “I poetry. I write it, study it, read it, edit it, publish it, teach it…Sometimes I weary of it. I could not live without it. Not in this world.”
Umberto Eco, who died on Feb. 15 at 84, was a semiotician by training, a scholar who studied signs and symbols — religious icons, clothing, words, musical scores. When he turned his hand to writing novels, Eco achieved superstar success on a global scale, never more so than with the first of his seven novels, The Name of the Rose, a yarn about murderous monks in a medieval monastery. Though it was larded with descriptions of heresies and Christian theology, it succeeded as a page-turner, a shameless whodunit that sold 10 million copies and was made into a big-budget Hollywood movie starring Sean Connery. Eco’s runaway popularity won the scorn of some critics and more than a few disgruntled academics, but he was unapologetic about wearing two hats. “I think of myself as a serious professor who, during the weekend, writes novels,” he said. In a postscript to The Name of the Rose, he added, “I wrote a novel because I had a yen to do it. I believe this is sufficient reason to set out to tell a story. Man is a storytelling animal by nature. I began writing in March of 1978, prodded by a seminal idea: I felt like poisoning a monk.”
Harper Lee, who died on Feb. 19 at 89, spent most of her long life claiming she was perfectly content being a one-hit wonder. No wonder. To Kill a Mockingbird won the Pulitzer Prize and has been branded “America’s most beloved novel,” with more than 40 million copies in print and a permanent place on every high school reading list in the land. The love was enormous but not universal. Flannery O’Connor dismissed the novel as “a child’s book,” which strikes me as neither unkind nor unfair.
In 2015, Lee’s lawyer talked her into publishing a “lost” novel, Go Set a Watchman. Reviews were mixed, to put it kindly, and many fans were dismayed to learn that Atticus Finch did not always walk on water, that he was capable, in fact, of being a card-carrying south Alabama peckerwood racist. Of course Watchman became an instantaneous #1 bestseller, but that doesn’t dispel the fact that some books should have the decency to stay lost and die a quiet death.
When I heard that Jim Harrison had died on March 26 at 78, I immediately reread Revenge, my personal favorite of his many magnificent novellas, a form at which he had few peers. This one has it all: vivid descriptions of the twinned geographies of the natural world and the human heart, a torrid affair between a former fighter pilot and a dangerous friend’s wife, which leads to rococo violence, which leads to more violence during a long campaign for revenge. The novella runs just 96 pages, yet it contains worlds. Jim Harrison’s world was a moral place, as finely calibrated as a clock. Violence begets violence; violation demands vengeance; every act has its price, and that price must be paid.
Harrison was also a prolific novelist, essayist and poet, author of a memoir, a children’s book, and some very funny writing about food. A shaggy Falstaffian from the wilds of northern Michigan, Harrison was a man with boundless appetites for food and wine, hunting and fishing, literature and life, a man who adored antelope liver and detested skinless chicken breasts, a man who once flew to France to take part in a 37-course lunch that featured 19 wines. French readers revere him, though his American readership is smaller than it should be. No matter. Jim Harrison lived and wrote his own way, the only way — all the way to the brim.
Read: A personal account of a decades-long friendship with Harrison.
Many books have captured the physical horrors of our Vietnam misadventure, but only one captured its psychedelic, rock ‘n’ roll absurdity. That book was Dispatches, a bombshell piece of reporting by Michael Herr that appeared in 1977, nearly a decade after his tour of duty as a war correspondent for Esquire magazine, covering an unwinnable orgy of carnage the only purpose of which, as he put it, was “maintaining the equilibrium of the Dingdong by containing the ever encroaching Doodah.” Herr, who died on June 23 at 76, made no secret of his respect for what the grunts went through, or his disdain for the officers and politicians who put them through it. John le Carré called Dispatches “the best book I have ever read about men and war in our time.” A decade after it appeared, Herr co-wrote the screenplay for Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket. He also wrote a book about his friendship with Kubrick, and a fictionalized biography of Walter Winchell. But in the last years of his life, Herr took up Buddhism and gave up writing.
Read: Our look at war books and the work Herr inspired.
James Alan McPherson
James Alan McPherson was the first black writer to win the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, for his 1977 story collection Elbow Room. After attending segregated schools in his native Georgia and graduating from Harvard Law School, McPherson took a sharp detour into the writing life, earning a master of fine arts degree from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where he wound up teaching from 1981 until his retirement in 2014.
Though his short stories, essays, and memoirs didn’t flinch from the evils of Jim Crow, McPherson strove to embrace the one thing he felt could possibly bestow greatness on America: its cultural diversity. An acolyte and occasional collaborator with Ralph Ellison, McPherson wrote in a 1978 essay in The Atlantic: “I believe that if one can experience its diversity, touch a variety of its people, laugh at its craziness, distill wisdom from its tragedies, and attempt to synthesize this inside oneself without going crazy, one will have earned to right to call oneself a citizen of the United States.” Speaking of the characters in his first collection of short stories, Hue and Cry, McPherson said, “Certain of these people happen to be black, and certain of them happen to be white; I have tried to keep the color part of most of them far in the background, where these things should rightly be kept.”
Read: A note on McPherson’s skill as a eulogist.
George and Martha — sad, sad, sad. It’s unlikely anyone will ever write a more acidic portrait of an American marriage than Edward Albee’s play Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?. After his 1959 debut, The Zoo Story, which opened in Berlin on a bill with Samuel Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape, Albee went on to write some 30 plays that shone light into the darkest precincts of well-to-do lives, where the regrets and the lies and the self-deception dwell. Though Albee, who died on Sept. 16 at 88, won two Tony Awards and three Pulitzer Prizes, he was not always embraced by critics or audiences. One reviewer dismissed Virginia Woolf as “a sick play for sick people.” Its film adaptation, starring Richard Burton as George, a bitter alcoholic academic, and Liz Taylor as Martha, his bitter alcoholic wife, captured the essence of Albee’s output. He described his work this way to a New York Times interviewer in 1991: “All of my plays are about people missing the boat, closing down too young, coming to the end of their lives with regret at things not done, as opposed to things done. I find most people spend too much time living as if they’re never going to die.”
Read: A personal account of someone who got his mail from Albee (really).
With her 1982 debut novel, The Women of Brewster Place, Gloria Naylor hit the trifecta: a National Book Award, a TV adaptation by Oprah Winfrey, and a wide and devoted readership. Naylor, who died on Sept. 28 at 66, spun her best-known novel around seven African-American women, straight and gay, who live in a shabby housing project plagued by sexual predators and poverty. Naylor said she regarded those seven women “like an ebony phoenix, each in her own time and with her own season had a story.” The Women of Brewster Place won the National Book Award for a first novel in 1983. A New York native and one-time Jehovah’s Witnesses missionary, Naylor said she left the church out of frustration over its limited role for women, a break that sent her into a deep depression. Like the “ebony phoenix,” she rose and was saved by her writing.
William Trevor wrote extraordinary fiction about the most ordinary of people — mechanics, priests, and farmers who lived in small English and Irish towns. Trevor, a native of Ireland who died on Nov. 20 at 88, wrote nearly 20 novels, many of them prize-winners, but he considered his true form the short story. Few would argue. “I’m a short story writer who writes novels when he can’t get them into short stories,” he said, adding, “I’m very interested in the sadness of fate, the things that just happen to people.” Like the evening a lovelorn Irish mechanic named Cahal, in the short story “The Dressmaker’s Child,” is driving a pair of Spanish lovers back from a visit to a bogus religious pilgrimage site — and the girl of the story’s title hurls herself at the passing car. Cahal is tortured by uncertainty over what happened to the girl and what will happen to him — until the dressmaker offers him a twisted form of absolution. Things just happen to people, and suddenly their ordinary predicaments are transformed into something startling and new.
Read: Lionel Shriver on reading Trevor.
And let’s not forget these notables, in alphabetical order:
Anita Brookner, 87, was an accomplished art historian when she started writing novels in her 50s, many of them about women mired in gloom. Her fourth novel, 1984’s Hotel du Lac, won the Booker Prize.
Read: A detailed exploration of of Brookner’s considerable charms.
David Budbill, 76, worked out of a remote cabin in rural Vermont for more than 40 years, writing stripped-down poems about the Vermont mountains and the “invisible” people who live there, in all their beauty and ugliness. A workmanlike writer who detested artsy pretension, Budbill was once asked about the source of his inspiration. “I don’t know where it comes from,” he replied, “and I don’t care.”
Vincent “Buddy” Cianci, 74, was the author of an autobiography, but he’ll be remembered as the brash mayor who breathed new life into his tired old hometown of Providence, Rhode Island — only to be undone by some nasty habits. He assaulted a romantic rival with a fireplace log, an ashtray, and a lit cigarette, which cost him his job as mayor. After serving a suspended sentence and winning re-election, Cianci was convicted of racketeering for accepting envelopes of cash in return for city jobs. After serving a federal prison sentence, he made a third run for the mayor’s office in 2015, but lost. His autobiography was called Politics and Pasta.
Read: A personal account of meeting Cianci.
Pat Conroy, 70, may have written his share of prose dripping with Spanish moss and Low Country hokum, but he attracted an army of devoted readers. he son of an abusive Marine fighter pilot, Conroy turned the horrors of his childhood into the novel The Great Santini, then followed it with The Lords of Discipline and The Prince of Tides, all made into hit Hollywood movies, all gobbled up by his fans. Asked to describe his son’s readers, the ever-charming Donald Conroy said, “That’s easy: psychiatrists, homosexuals, extreme liberals and women.” He forgot to add: and lots of them.
Read: Conroy’s reaction to having his books banned.
Warren Hinckle, 77, was the swashbuckling, hard-drinking editor of Ramparts and other magazines who railed against the Vietnam War, published Che Guevara’s diaries and Eldridge Cleaver’s letters from prison, and helped birth gonzo journalism by publishing Hunter S. Thompson’s seminal article “The Kentucky Derby Is Decadent and Depraved,” along with Ralph Steadman’s volcanic drawings. American journalism was changed forever.
Thom Jones, 71, was a recovering alcoholic working as a high school janitor when he mailed a short story called “The Pugilist at Rest” to The New Yorker. The magazine published the story in 1991, and it won the O. Henry Prize for best short story. It was a stunning beginning to a career of writing semi-autobiographical stories about soldiers, boxers, janitors, crime victims — “people,” as Jones put it, “you don’t want living next door to you.”
Read: A Year in Reading on Jones.
Imre Kertész, 86, survived internment at Auschwitz and Buchenwald, then spent years writing semi-autobiographical novels about the Holocaust and its aftermath. The books, remarkable for their lack of sensationalism, languished in obscurity until 2002, when Kertesz became the only Hungarian to win the Nobel Prize in Literature.
Read: A Year in Reading on Kertész.
Florence King, 80, was one of the last of a breed that is all but extinct: the misanthropic curmudgeon. In columns for the conservative National Review and several books, most notably Confessions of a Failed Southern Lady, King skewered liberalism, feminism, and anything that smelled remotely of political correctness. Nobody could possibly agree with all of her opinions, but just about everybody admired her ability to lacerate and enrage, which, after all, is what misanthropic curmudgeons are supposed to do. She once wrote: “Feminists will not be satisfied until every abortion is performed by a gay black doctor under an endangered tree on a reservation for handicapped Indians.” Wow.
Read: A detailed look at King’s work and life.
W.P. Kinsella, 81, wrote 30 books of fiction, nonfiction and poetry, much of it infused with his intertwined love for magic realism and the game of baseball. His best known book is the novel Shoeless Joe, which was made into the 1989 movie Field of Dreams, in which Kevin Costner plays an Iowa farmer who carves a baseball diamond into his cornfield to attract Shoeless Joe Jackson and the rest of the disgraced Chicago “Black Sox” back from the grave. One viewer dismissed the movie as “Field of Corn,” but it produced a line that lives on: “If you build it, he will come.”
Read: A piece on the great writers of baseball.
Image Credit: Public Domain Pictures.
In Samuel Beckett’s previously unpublished “Echo’s Bones,” we find a deceased character, Belacqua Shuah, dragged back to something resembling life: a fitting subject for a story that itself has been dragged back from the dead 80 years after its rejection by a British publisher. Before attending to the unearthing of this macabre tale, a brief anecdote about another story of Beckett’s that was only half-rejected by a French publisher.
In 1946, “The End,” Beckett’s first extended composition in French, was accepted by Les Temps modernes, the review started by Jean-Paul Sartre. Or rather, the first half of the story was accepted. Beckett was under the assumption that the second half would be published in a subsequent issue, but Simone de Beauvoir, one of the editors, balked, never having been informed that the submission was part of a larger work. And so “The End,” would appear without its ending, prompting him to write a pleading letter to de Beauvoir:
…it is quite impossible for me to escape from the duty I have towards one of my creatures. Forgive these grand words. If I feared ridicule, I would stay silent…You allow me to speak only to cut me off before my voice has time to mean something. You halt an existence before it can have the least achievement. This is the stuff of nightmares…
These “grand words” are instructive about Beckett’s oeuvre for two reasons. First, they emphasize the structured nature of Beckett’s seemingly improvised, contingent beings. Though doomed to persist in a seemingly meaningless void over “vast tracts of time” (How It Is), his creatures undergo a meticulous, stage-managed devolution.
Second, Beckett’s earnest avowal of his authorial duty towards his characters counterbalances the ironic stance towards them usually adopted in his works. In Endgame, Hamm, aghast, asks Clov: “We’re not beginning to…to…mean something?” In The Unnameable, the typically dyspeptic narrator refers to all those characters with whom he has “wasted” his time as “bran-drips.” And the old man in Krapp’s Last Tape listens to tape recordings made in his middle age: “Just been listening to that stupid bastard I took myself for thirty years ago, hard to believe I was ever as bad as that.”
No one is tougher on a Beckett character than Beckett, and perhaps no character receives as much abuse as the first major one, Belacqua Shuah. (Alas, the firstborn always gets the worst of it.) Belacqua is the namesake of the slothful Florentine lute maker whom Dante finds sitting in “embryonic repose,” head resting on his knees and too lazy to ascend Mount Purgatory. He first appears as the protagonist of Dream of Fair to Middling Women, the novel unpublished during Beckett’s lifetime. Midway through, the narrator announces that “We picked Belacqua for the job and now we find that he is not able for it.”
After failing to find Dream a publisher, Beckett repurposed some of the novel’s material into a collection of short stories, More Pricks Than Kicks, featuring the “impossible” and impossibly learned Belacqua, an “indolent bourgeois poltroon” with a “strong weakness for oxymoron.”
In 1933, Charles Prentice, editor of Chatto & Windus (or as Beckett would call them, Shat-on and Wind-up) agreed to publish these 10 Belacqua stories, but he suggested to Beckett that it would benefit from adding another 5,000- or 10,000-word tale. There was one problem: the protagonist had died in the collection’s penultimate story, “Yellow,” during an operation to have a tumor on the back of his neck removed. Rather than work an earlier story into the chronology, Beckett chose to reanimate Belacqua, granting him a “new lease on apathy” (to borrow a phrase from “Yellow”).
Prentice was initially optimistic, writing Beckett that he was “delighted that Belacqua Lazarus will we walking again shortly.” After receiving the manuscript, however, and reading Belacqua’s surreal and densely allusive account of his afterlife, Prentice sent Beckett a mortified rejection letter saying the story gave him the “jim-jams” and asking if they could publish the story collection in its original form: “This is a dreadful debacle — on my part, not on yours…Yet the only plea for mercy I can make is that the icy touch of those revenant fingers was too much for me.”
(“Icy touch of those revenant fingers” — they don’t write rejection letters like they used to.)
Was Prentice correct in thinking More Pricks Than Kicks would be better off without the final story? Yes. And yet I concur with the assessment of one character in “Echo’s Bones” who tells Belacqua that “saving a slight tendency to overwork the figure…you phrase your ideas with distinction I should say.” Early Beckett couldn’t be summed up better.
“Echo’s Bones,” opens thusly:
The dead die hard, they are trespassers on the beyond, they must take the place as they find it, the shafts and manholes back into the muck, till such time as the lord of the manor incurs through his long acquiescence a duty of care in respect of them.
The first, punchy clause sounds like a hard-boiled detective novel, before the sentence lays out the elements that will haunt Beckett’s fiction for the rest of his career: a purgatorial state of waiting in the muck for something to arrive — some person, sign, the magic words or a merciful death — to arrive and end what the Unnameable describes as the “long sin against the silence.” Like many declining characters that would follow him, Belacqua finds himself in a “tedious process of extinction.”
“Echo’s Bones” is the story of three disturbances in Belacqua’s “beatitude of sloth.” Awaking after his demise only to be shuttled to and fro, he is right to complain that being a ghost “has claimed so much of my time that I sometimes wonder whether death is not the greatest swindle of modern times.” Belacqua is repeatedly snatched or otherwise beset upon as a kind of payment for the “debt of nature” he owes from not having led a particularly virtuous life. However, Belacqua seems less interested in atoning for his sins than in protesting against these violent interruptions, which prevent him from his ideal of “sedendo et quiescendo” (sitting down and being quiet): “But this, this rape, this contempt of his person, this violation of his postliminy, really it was not to be endured.”
We first see him resting atop a fence before being approached by a prostitute, Miss Zaborovna Privet, who lures a reluctant Belacqua to her home, where he is “ravished” out of her clutches at the precise moment he is about to ravished by her.
Now comes the fun part. Belacqua is transported to the edge of Wormwood, the large estate of the giant Lord Gall, where he is hit by an errant “long putt” in the coccyx, “that little known funny bone of amativeness.” Lord Gall is an impotent, “aspermatic colossus” in danger of losing his estate unless Belacqua can be convinced to impregnate his wife and thereby give him an heir. Lord Gall straps Belacqua on his back and climbs a massive tree to the his majestic aerie, after which they engage in all sorts of philosophical and innuendo-laden discussions, enjoy a rough slide back down through a trap-door in the trunk (“Vaseline omnia vincit”) and are met by a “rogue ostrich,” Strauss, who “simply waltzes along, never hesitates” and delivers Belacqua to Lady Gall’s bedchamber.
(Was the colossal Lord Gall in Beckett’s thoughts when, years later, he would give the young Andre the Giant rides to school in his truck?)
In the last section, Belacqua finds perched top his own grave, where he chats with and eventually aids a bodysnatching groundskeeper trying to dig up his coffin. References to Hamlet and the New Testament are strewn about as freely as Belacqua blithely ignores a submarine of departing souls lingering offshore.
This description perhaps makes the 50-page tale sound more engaging than it is. The best of the stories from More Pricks Than Kicks are not coincidentally the shortest. Belacqua is after all a comic grotesque (as are most of his companions), a character best served in brief, inspired flights of fancy — a clumsily executed suicide pact in “Love and Lethe” or the rapturous toasting of sandwich bread and the negotiation over the rottenest piece of Gorgonzola to be had in Dublin in “Dante and the Lobster.”
“Echo’s Bones” is an extended flight of fancy into which Beckett admitted to putting all he knew: Dante, Ovid, St. Augustine, Darwin, Goethe, Burton, Rimbaud, the Brothers Grimm, and more. The Beckett scholar Mark Nixon is an able guide, tracking down every reference in an “Annotations” section nearly as long as the story itself. Some of these provide a lively payoff. When Belacqua asks Lord Gall if his wife would “sink or swim in Diana’s well,” Nixon takes us to an explanation found in Robert Burton: “Diana’s well, in which maids did swim, whores were drowned.” (Lady Gall swims). Other recondite references don’t reward the page-flipping as handsomely.
The following decades would see Beckett gradually moving away from Joycean allusiveness and towards what he described as a more impoverished style radically different than the one on display here. However, amidst the cacophony, the faint stirrings of that move can be heard in “Echo’s Bones”: “Economy is the great thing now, from now on till the end.”