With the publication in 1968 of The Literary Life: A Scrapbook Almanac of the Anglo-American Literary Scene from 1900 to 1950, Robert Phelps and Peter Deane seem to have presaged the Facebook era in recognizing how much we – literary folk in particular – love tidbits and gossip. The Literary Life takes us through the first half of the 20th Century in literature, yearbook style, “Comprising pictures, gossip, homage, warnings and clues – together with laurels, letters, lists and whispered asides.” In a given year, we see several lists – “a rich cross-section of the creating matrix” – including:
major books published in English
a selection of books published in other languages
notable works in other artistic disciplines
So we see, for example, that 1925 was the year of The Painted Veil, Mrs. Dalloway, No More Parades, and Arthur Waley’s translation of The Tale of Genji, among others; and that it was a productive year for Robert Graves, DH Lawrence, Aldous Huxley, Virginia Woolf, Yeats, and Edith Sitwell, all of whom published in multiple genres. Following these is a section called, “In the Margin” – world events, literary events, gossip, anecdotes, moves/real estate news, marriages, divorces, financial windfalls and failures, travels, journal entries and excerpts from private correspondence, awards and prizes, job changes, health reports… Again, in 1925, for example:
En route to Europe for the first time, Willliam Faulkner stops over in New Orleans, meets Sherwood Anderson, and lingers for six months, during which he completes his first novel, Soldier’s Pay. A little later, reportedly in gratitude for not having been asked to read the manuscript, Anderson recommends it to his own publisher.
(It’s the “reportedly” that I love here.) And
Working as a busboy […] and unable to get into the […] “White Only” theater to hear Vachel Lindsay recite, Langston Hughes pays homage by leaving three of his own poems beside Lindsay’s plate […] That evening, Lindsay began his recital by reading Hughes’s poems, and the next morning Hughes arrived at work to find himself surrounded by reporters and his career launched.
The Literary Life is also full of photographs, quotations, and the publication histories of many writers who’ve fallen out of currency – Ivy Compton-Burnett, Glenway Wescott, Edith Sitwell, Stefan Zweig, Marcel Jouandeau, Walter de la Mare, William Saroyan, Andrew Lytle, T.E. Lawrence, Sarah Orne Jewett – perhaps deservedly, perhaps not. You decide.
The Literary Life makes no claims of completeness. In the creators’ words, “This Almanac had better be owned, not borrowed; and its owner must use it possessively, aggressively, with fountain pen in hand. He must cover its margins with further details, other titles, with events from political history, sports, movies, whatever obsesses him personally.” (emphasis mine) Phelps and Deane were interested in the individualized, romantic convergence of reader and writer; in the deeply-felt notion that literature matters in life, that indeed it is life. They assure the reader that they do not wish to impose A Canon, but rather to launch an experience by presenting a format, along with their highly subjective content: Here is our beloved canon; what is yours?
Now that we have arrived in the age of Facebook, blogs, and Twitter, the physical scrapbook presentation of literary cross-sections may be obsolete; still there is something wonderful about 1925 “at a glance,” the levels and ripples of hyperlinks evoked rather than actual, allowing the reader to stay put, to dwell in that literary moment, no clicking or scrolling, perhaps following her own associative thought, fountain pen in hand, ready to make her mark.
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 of Books, among others.I must begin this with a caveat. As a judge of Three Percent/Open Letter’s translation of the year award, I’m going to be reading some 15 books over the next month. Undoubtedly, some of these books will be among the best books I’ve read this year, so this list will be necessarily lacking some excellent titles. But here are the best books I’ve read in the first 11 months of this year.I started off the year with Tom Jones by Henry Fielding, one of the greatest and most lasting books to come out of the 18th century. It’s an often hilarious, sometimes ribald account of a young, impoverished orphan who falls in love with a woman far above his station. For about 800 pages their love is thwarted by the young lady’s father, and I’m sure everyone can guess the end. Besides being an indispensable step on the novel’s path from the epic to what we would recognize today as “normal” realist fiction, it’s a thoroughly engrossing tale that’s plain fun to read. Fielding’s flowing sentences and sharp irony know no boundaries of time.I can best express my admiration for The Invention of Morel by Adolfo Bioy Casares by saying that I’ve already convinced roughly 20 people (that I’m aware of) to read this book. It’s rare that I evangelize this energetically for a novel, but Morel is the kind of book I want to share. For more about it and Bioy, aka Borges’s best friend, protege, and collaborator, read my essay from The Quarterly Conversation.For a long time Gunter Grass was a large gap in my reading, but now he is one that I have successfully filled – with his mammoth novel The Tin Drum. I can best sum up this book by saying that it is a family saga that I think could only have been written during the 20th century. It is the story of a 29-year-old man who has somehow constrained his growth to the proportions and form of a 3-year-old boy, and he tells the story of his family from his padded room in an asylum in which he drums lucrative, award-winning musical recordings on, what else, his tin drum. Anyone who thinks they know the definition of the word imagination should read The Tin Drum, because they really don’t know what the word means until they see some of the things Grass comes up with in this novel.I really don’t understand why Manuel Puig is not more famous than he is. He’s easily one of the giants of 20th-century Latin American fiction, and his novels are both plotty enough to entertain and deep enough to argue over. Many consider Kiss of the Spiderwoman his masterwork. Anyone wanting to finally find out about one of David Foster Wallace’s favorite novelists, a man who somehow managed to interrogate Lacan’s theories of the mind, homosexuality, feminism, and gender relations via engrossing plots, should start with this novel.Ford Madox Ford is my new favorite neglected author. On the power of his two best novels, he is easily one of the greats of the 20th century, yet few of his 80-some books are available today and he is not often read. It’s too bad. Ford was the founder of The Transatlantic Review, a legendary literary journal that’s partly responsible for Ernest Hemingway’s career. He’s also the author of at least two books that should stand with the greatest novels of the century. The Good Soldier reads like a Kazuo Ishiguro book written by James Joyce. For my money, it’s the best unreliable narrator novel I’ve ever read. Parade’s End is a different beast: a mammoth novel of Britain during World War I that partially looks backward to The Good Soldier but partially looks forward to modernist innovations a la Virginia Woolf.Along with Gunter Grass, Thomas Mann was another major gap in my reading (Death in Venice doesn’t count). I got interested in Doctor Faustus, Mann’s saga of the classical composer Adrian Leverkuhn, when the music critic Alex Ross declared it his favorite book on classical music. Why would someone such as Ross label a work of fiction the best book ever on classical music? The answer is that Mann’s book can teach you at least as much about serial composition and classical music aesthetics as it can about why Germany fell prey to Nazism, the Faust legend, and Adorno’s thoughts on literary theory. Which is to say, a lot. Faustus is a very rigorous read, but it is an incredibly rewarding one, a book that simply shows no weakness whatsoever and sets very high standard. I’m quite tempted to say that out of everything I read this year, this one book stands above them all.Quick, name 5 famous authors from Central America. Okay, name one. For those who had trouble answering, you should find out about Horacio Castellanos Moya’s novel Senselessness. The book is a paranoid, dirty, somewhat pornographic rant by an unbalanced man who has been tricked into the politically controversial and somewhat dangerous job of editing a 1,400-page report on atrocities that occurred during Guatemala’s civil war. (The report is real, and people did die to create it.) But even if Moya had written about a perfectly sedate gentleman who did the laundry, I still think I’d read it, as he writes the best first-person, run-on sentences this side of Carlos Fuentes.Another noteworthy Latino, recommended to me by Moya’s English-language translator, is the Cuban author Alejo Carpentier, whose novel The Lost Steps I enjoyed this year. The novel is something of a modernist search for the great Amazon/Latin American foundational myth, a 300-page Conradian journey from New York City to the farthest reaches of the Amazon river basin. At many points, Carpentier’s descriptions of Latin American cities and natural landscapes are simply awesome – they actually make me feel like I’m back there again.There are also a few greats that I would be remiss in not mentioning, but that hardly need me to introduce them to you. So, instead of begging you to bathe in their glory, I’ll simply list them here and note that they are as good as you’ve been told. They are: 2666 by Roberto Bolano, Within a Budding Grove by Marcel Proust, The Castle by Franz Kafka, The Red and the Black by Stendhal, The Mill on the Floss by George Eliot, and All the Pretty Horses by Cormac McCarthy.More from A Year in Reading 2008