Reading Chekhov: A Critical Journey

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A Year in Reading: Garth Risk Hallberg

For me, 2009 was the year of Europe Central – not so much because I would wind up reading, in late November, William T. Vollmann’s large novel of that name, but because a couple of chance encounters back in January (Bohumil Hrabal’s I Served the King of England and Jonathan Littell’s The Kindly Ones (reviewed here)) set me on a path toward it. In the intervening months, I found myself traipsing back and forth between literary Berlin and literary Moscow and losing myself in the territories in between.

My very favorite of the books I encountered during these peregrinations – indeed, the best book I read all year – was A Book of Memories, by the Hungarian master Péter Nádas. A glib way of describing this indescribable novel would be to say that it is to postmodernism what The Magic Mountain is to modernism – rigorous, comprehensive…a classic. However, the author who kept coming to mind as I read was Harold Brodkey. Nádas’ psychological and phenomenological insights are, like those of Brodkey’s stories, microscopically acute. Formally, however, A Book of Memories offers more excitement. The novel unfolds like a game of three-card monte, giving us several narrators whose gradual convergence seems to encompass the entire aesthetic and political history of Central Europe in the 20th Century.

A close second would have to be The Foundation Pit, by the early-Soviet-era writer Andrey Platonov. This slim novel reckons the cost of the Stalinist industrial program, but in the process reveals an ecstatic vision of the human soul. I agree with Edwin Frank of NYRB Classics: Platonov’s voice is as arresting as Kafka’s. It is also tender, and weirdly touching. And Platonov inspired me to read (finally) Life and Fate, the sweeping World War II saga by his good friend Vasily Grossman. This novel, like some of Platonov’s work, was suppressed by Soviet censors, and as a consequence was never properly edited. That shows, I think, in the sketchiness of some of the book’s secondary characters and plots. But at its frequent best – in its depiction of German death camps; in its attention to the trials of Viktor Shtrum and his family; and in an early, haunting letter from Viktor’s mother – Life and Fate approaches the depth of its models, Tolstoy and Chekhov.

The two finest works of nonfiction I read this year, by contrast, had a distinctly American flavor: Gay Talese’s Thy Neighbor’s Wife and Edie, a riveting oral history of Edie Sedgwick, edited by Jean Stein. Each is in the neighborhood of 500 pages, but reads with the propulsion of an intellectual whodunit. Taken together, they create a panorama of the transformative years between World War II and Vietnam, whose upheavals we’re still living down today. Come for the titillation; stay for the education.

Amid these longer works, it was a relief to have poetry collections to dip into. My favorites were Frederick Seidel’s Ooga-Booga and John Berryman’s The Dream Songs, both of which I wrote about here. (On second thought, where these two poets are concerned, maybe relief isn’t quite the right word.) Similarly, a couple of coffeetable books offered piecemeal inspiration. Air : 24 Hours, a remarkable monograph on/interview with the painter Jennifer Bartlett, is freshly minted MacArthur Genius Deborah Eisenberg’s My Dinner With Andre. I also heartily recommend Up is Up, But So is Down, an anthology of Downtown New York literature from the 1970s and 1980s. Reproductions of flyers and zines adorn this volume, expertly compiled by Brandon Stosuy. Come for the images; stay for the writing.

A couple of other novels I loved this year were Saul Bellow’s Humboldt’s Gift and Virginia Woolf’s The Waves. Each, in my read, unraveled at the end, and so didn’t quite stand with Nádas (or Herzog, or Mrs. Dalloway). But each reached rare pinnacles of perception and beauty, and I’m always pleased to spend time in the company of these writers.

The best new books I read were Jonathan Lethem’s Chronic City and Ingo Schulze’s New Lives. One of the first things people notice about Lethem is his skylarking prose, but in this most recent novel, a note of deeper irony (the kind born of pain; one wants to call it European, or maybe Bellovian) disciplines the sentences. I look forward to seeing where Lethem goes next. The East German setting of New Lives, and its uroboric epistolary structure – starting late in the story, slowly filling in the background – made for slow going at first, but the ethical intensity of its restaging of Faust has haunted me since I read it.

And then there was Europe Central, about which more anon. I’m not sure I can recommend it, anymore than I was sure I could recommend Joseph McElroy’s Women and Men last year. I haven’t even decided if I think Europe Central is a good book. But it swallowed me by slow degrees, and hasn’t quite let go.

There are many, many more amazing books I’d like to write about here: Janet Malcolm’s book on Chekhov; McElroy’s Lookout Cartridge; Rabbit Redux, Running Dog, Dog Soldiers; The Book of Daniel, Daniel Deronda… In fact, looking forward to “A Year in Reading” has begun to exert a formal pressure on my reading list, encouraging me to bypass the ephemeral in search of books I might passionately recommend. Fully half of what I read this year blew my mind, and I look forward to some future “Year in Reading” entry when I have 52 masterpieces to endorse. Imagine: one great book a week. For now, though, mindful that your hunger to read a 10,000 word post about what I read is probably even less keen than mine is to write it, I’ll leave you with these titles, and wishes for great reading in 2010.

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A Year in Reading: Garth Risk Hallberg

Millions contributor Garth Risk Hallberg is the author of the novella A Field Guide to the North American Family and is a 2008 New York Foundation for the Arts fellow in fiction. This year, his work appeared in the anthologies Best New American Voices and Best of the Web.When it comes to books, I’m less a gourmet than a gourmand. It’s not that the slim, perfect novel doesn’t excite my palate, but when I’m in the middle of a sensational meal, I want it never to end – or at least to give the illusion of infinitude. And so I hunger for big books – thousand-calorie entrees I wrap rubber bands around to keep the bindings intact.This year, as I approached my thirtieth birthday, these big books appealed to me with even greater urgency. At some point soon, the demands of family life and the writing life are going to leave me with less time for “loose, baggy monsters,” and so I’ve been trying to get the important ones under my belt. After all, there are only so many behemoths out there, right? Well, it turns out that big books share certain Hydra-like properties with books in general. This year, I knocked off ten enormous tomes; I added about twenty to my “to-read” list.The best of the best – the book that came closest to being everything I want in a novel – was Mortals (712 pp), by Norman Rush. It’s a funny book, in that it forgoes the immediate pyrotechnics of Rush’s first novel, Mating (a mere 474 pp), which I also read this year. Still I’m convinced that, once you’ve acquired a taste for Rush’s penetrating yet hugely compassionate voice – his astonishing negative capability – you will find Mortals to be one of the two or three best American novels published this decade. And it just gets better as it goes along: the 100-page climax is almost literally explosive.A close second was Roberto Bolaño’s 2666 (893 pp), a novel I’m still thinking about, half a year after first reading it. As with Mortals, I hesitate to recommend diving straight into it; you might want to learn to trust Bolaño, as I did, by first reading his more trenchant performances (Nazi Literature in the Americas (227 pp including epilogue) (review), then Distant Star (149 pp), and then The Savage Detectives (still comparatively lean at 577 pp) (review)). But 2666 is a cabinet of wonders, and a landmark in contemporary letters.Inspired by Joshua Ferris’ 2007 Year in Reading entry, I went on a late-period Henry James bender this year, which (to return to the food metaphor) is sort of like gorging on lobster with a heavy cream sauce. In its rich evocation of human subjectivity, The Wings of the Dove (711 pp) is a dazzling technical achievement, but it’s James’ deep feeling for his characters that makes this my favorite of his novels. Of course, if the representation of subjectivity is to your taste, I should also recommend Under the 82nd Airborne (230 pp in The Stories (So Far) of Deborah Eisenberg) (review), in which our finest short story writer refines into deft turns of phrase what James took pages and pages to do. I think of Eisenberg and James as two-thirds of a triumvirate: Discoverers of the American Mind. The third third is Saul Bellow, with whom I spent most of June. Of the several books I read, Mr. Sammler’s Planet (260 pp) struck me as the most surprising, courageous, and challenging.Ms. Eisenberg’s advocacy, at a PEN World Voices panel, persuaded me to sate my appetite for German-language literature with Robert Walser’s Jakob van Gunten (176 pp), a bewitching (and blessedly brief) evocation of adolescence. I also marveled at Alfred Döblin’s pitch-black Berlin Alexanderplatz (378 closely printed pp). Then I turned back to the big American novel. Joseph McElroy’s Women and Men (1192 pp) is the longest book I have ever read, by a good 150,000 words. It took me six weeks to finish, at least, and, python-like, I’m still digesting, but the achievements in sections like “Larry,” “the future,” and “Alias Missing Conversation” rank with the best of Pynchon, Barth, Gaddis, and David Foster Wallace.Speaking of Wallace, the best book I re-read this year was Infinite Jest (1079 pp with footnotes), which was fresh in my mind when news of the author’s death reached his readers. IJ still looks to me like the fictional high-water-mark of a generation. I welcome debate on this point, but revisiting the book debunks claims that Wallace is too intellectual, too indulgent, or too stylized; here, he does everything the ten next-best American writers can do, and does it better (see, e.g., pp 851- 981). That we’ll never get to see another novel from him is an incalculable loss.Fortunately for us, the reservoir of literary talent in his generation runs deep; following other writers as they advance the cause of fiction forward is a kind of consolation. Trance (505 pp), by Year in Reading participant Christopher Sorrentino, was the book by a young American that most impressed me this year (review). The writing – tough, funny, elegant, jive – really astonished me, as did the way the novel mobilizes the 1970s in service of the now. I guess all history really is present history.The work of nonfiction I most enjoyed in 2008 was Janet Malcolm’s Gertrude and Alice: Two Lives (224 pp). Malcolm is at least as good a critic as she is a journalist; her approach to literature is refreshingly humble, nimble, curious, and delighted. (I’m reading her Chekhov book now (205 pp.)) I only made it halfway through Gertrude Stein’s novel The Making of Americans this summer (it’s an annual endeavor; 925 pp), but Gertrude and Alice, which I devoured in a single, lovely July day, was a welcome substitute. I would also be remiss if I didn’t mention Timothy Donaldson’s book on the development of alphabets, Shapes for Sounds. Reading it is like sitting in on a lecture by the most brilliant professor in the department. It is also – not incidentally – a triumph of design on the order of David Macauley.Finally, I have to say something about political books, which functioned this year as quick, bitter palate-cleansers. For eight years, a small corps of investigative journalists – Hersh, Wright, Mayer, Packer – has been working to keep our government honest. I’d like to nominate Washington Post reporter Barton Gellman for inclusion on this honor roll. In addition to being a riveting, lively, and infuriating read, his book, Angler (384 pp), introduced me to one of the most fascinating literary characters I’ve yet encountered: Richard B. “Dick” Cheney. For pure, mysterious “lifeness” (to borrow the most useful term from James Wood’s How Fiction Works (248 pp)), Cheney rivals Wallace’s Don Gately, and Rush’s Ray Finch, Bellow’s Artur Sammler, and Eisenberg’s many protagonists. We’ll be chewing over (or choking on) his legacy for years to come. It’s a good thing we’ll have good books, large and small, to nourish us along the way.More from A Year in Reading 2008

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