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In Memoriam: Anthony “One-Take Tony” Hollander

The audiobook community audibly mourns the passing of one of its giants, Anthony Hollander, or “One-Take Tony” as he was known in the business. Whether narrating an epic, farce, or cozy mystery, his recordings all started the same: a clearing of the throat, a deep breath, and then the gruff-but-good-natured command to Scop, his dog, to vacate the studio. Hollander would then set to work reading, without interruption, one of the thousands of books he recorded over his career.

“I’ve been reading since I was four years old. So why would
I need multiple takes?” he told an interviewer in 2010.

The sound of his gravelly baritone has transported readers from
Hardy’s Wessex to Garcia-Marquez’s Macando. A more controversial figure than
Flo Gibson, his longtime rival (and, some rumored, lover), he will be
remembered not only for his recordings—including the definitive version of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn—but also
for the narratorial intrusions that delighted and frustrated audiences in equal
measure. There was a Rabelaisian energy to Hollander’s recordings, and indeed
his eructations (frequent), flatulence (intermittent) and snores (rare) were as
recognizable to devoted fans as his voice.

Hollander was an unpredictable reader, a narrator-as-critic. He grunted upon reading overwrought sentences, paused to deride mixed metaphors, and, in one particularly infamous episode, launched ad hominem attacks: “Who wrote this crap?” he could be heard on the recording of [redacted]’s latest novel. “Look at this author photo. Figures.”

He permanently alienated David Foster Wallace fans by interrupting Infinite Jest to take a phone call.  “Hello? No I haven’t thought about solar panels. Oh? I can sell my excess electricity back to the power company? That’s interesting. Look, I’m narrating a book right now but can I get back to you? OK, send along the info. Now where I was? Oh yes…”

Hollander once claimed that, had audiobook fame not been thrust upon him, he would have been a detective. Mystery fans did not appreciate his tendency to breezily dismiss clues (“Obvious red herring”) and to identify, often accurately, the killers before they were revealed (“Murderer written all over him”). The Crime Writers’ Association, incensed after Hollander had ruined one too many P.D. James plot twists, sponsored a short-story contest in his (dis)honor: the prize going to the most ingenious mystery imagining his murder.


In Hollander’s defense, he offended across genres. Henry James scholars bristled at his vulgar commentary on Isabel Archer and Caspar Goodwood, “Just fuck him already,” which earned his recording of The Portrait of a Lady a rare NC-17 rating.

According to his autobiography, Sounding Myself, Hollander discovered the transfixing power of his voice during grade-school reading exercises. “My stentorian delivery put the other toddlers to shame, their snotty fingers inching along the page as they hazarded one quavering syllable at a time,” he wrote in his memoirs, the audio version of which was read by Jeremy Irons. (“The one mortal whose voice I envy.”)


An audiobook talent scout discovered Hollander after hearing him summon a waiter for the check in his local North Carolina diner. His first taping was of Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, during which he got up and said, “I’ve got to take a piss” about 10 pages in. The director, feeling the interruption jibed with Wolfe’s freewheeling gonzo journalism, kept the tape rolling, thus ingraining in One-take Tony his lifelong habit.

Hollander was an autodidact, and some critics held it against him. They snottily observed that it was all well and good to record a book in one take, provided one could actually pronounce the words. Though many an author, editor, and listener attempted to correct him, Hollander never could quite master pronouncing “bough” or “draught” in the heat of the moment, and consistently mangled all French words—emboinpoint and décolletage causing him particular consternation. And yet these flubs endeared him to listeners, who saw in Hollander a relatable everyman: “Ama-nu-ensis? What the hell is an amanuensis? I know I’ve seen that word somewhere.”

Hollander’s vocal range could accommodate several character
types—dainty, dangerous, homespun—but differentiation wasn’t his strong suit. Minor
characters confused him. “Wait, who is that guy again? Is that the cousin or
the friend from college? No, the cousin died. Or was he the gardener?”

In a controversy that threatened to derail his career, Hollander could be heard pleasuring himself while reading Philip Roth’s Sabbath’s Theater. (Thankfully he was alone in the studio, having long served as his own producer, director, and sound engineer.) The stigma lingered for years. During negotiations to narrate 50 Shades of Grey, he was forced to agree to the humiliating stipulation that he record the erotic thriller with his hands tied behind his back. (“All the kinkier,” he would write in Sounding.)

Certain authors refused to have their novel read by Hollander, especially during his later years, when, having “become allergic to nature scenes,” he started derisively glossing over descriptive passages: “Sky, weather, pathetic fallacy, yada yada yada.”

Hollander died where he belonged, in the recording studio,
narrating a debut novel that, judging from the absence of naps, bathroom breaks,
and crusty asides, he seemed to thoroughly enjoy. Perhaps too thoroughly. On
his final recording, the fatal heart attack—a disturbing, yet still mellifluous,
groan—can be heard in the middle of Chapter 5, right before Jeremy Irons
graciously takes over.

Image credit: Unsplash/Claus Grünstäudl.

A Year in Reading: Michael Pollan

What I get to read is not necessarily what I want to read–research pulls me this way and that, and then teaching exerts its own gravitational force, and then there’s book club, so I’m not exactly the captain of my reading list. But this year I finished a book, which opened some space for actual reading, rather than “research.” The single most provocative book I read this year was The Evolution of Beauty by Richard Prum, one of those books that changes the way you look at everything, from the feathers of birds to the penises of humans (and ducks) to the ways female choice shapes evolution. Everything about this book is unexpected, including the prose–fine and often funny. I got through book two of My Struggle, which became my insomnia go-to; Karl Ove Knausgaard’s account of becoming a father and at the same time a writer I found deeply affecting, especially as these bolts of bliss burst through his usual overcast of melancholy. I also loved Autumn, his book of short essays about the eruptions of wonder in everyday life. What’s great about liking Knausgaard is you can be sure there’s always more where that came from. The unexpected hit of our book club was Philip Roth’s Sabbath’s Theater, probably his best book but so scabrous it’s hard to recommend. The voice of Teju Cole, in both his novel Open City, and his essays, has been great company this year and, while I try to stay off cable news and Twitter, Kurt Andersen’s Fantasyland has given me a slant view of the news that makes considerably more sense of it than Anderson Cooper or Lawrence O’Donnell. Writers (I’m embarrassed to say were) new to me whose voices I found particularly striking were Leslie Jamison (The Empathy Exams) and John Jeremiah Sullivan (Pulphead).

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AudioVox: On Nicholson Baker, Audiobooks, and Reading

A short time after I finished writing B & Me, a book about Nicholson Baker told in the spirit of Baker’s seminal book-length essay about John Updike, U and I, I was asked to give a reading about Baker’s phone sex novel, Vox, the hitch being that whatever I read aloud needed to be original work, not just something from my book. That was fine with me. Of course it meant that I had to read Vox again, no complaints there, and what I decided to do was read it this time — my fourth time, I think — by listening to it as audiobook, which is the phrase we’ve come to use of late for recordings of authors or actors reading books out loud.

This made sense for a couple reasons, the first being that I myself would be reading something out loud. That was perfect, because when books were, once upon a time, a much rarer commodity, so rare that not many people owned them, in fact, most people had access to the contents of books only through scheduled public readings, and so going to readings was really what reading was because most people couldn’t afford to sit and read a book in the quiet way that we now think of reading. So reading Vox as an audiobook and reading aloud an essay about doing so was possibly a way of bringing literature full circle and asking what this new audiobook phenomenon, if it’s fair to say there is one, is really about.

And the second reason this made sense was that Vox, as an all-dialogue, or almost all-dialogue book, would seem to be pretty perfectly suited to the audiobook format, just add another actor for the second voice of the exchange, and I’d already had the thought, while initially reading the book, that Vox would make a pretty good stage play, something on the order of A.R. Gurney’s Love Letters, though of course Vox is much racier and not nearly as mediocre as Love Letters, though it’s snooty of me to say that because I haven’t read Love Letters, or heard it, or seen it. But still.

And so, anyway, not only did I decide to, so to speak, audially re-read Vox, I decided to do this in public, because the audiobook phenomenon, and this may be my hypothesis here, may not actually be helping the world of books because people don’t just sit and audially read books, the way people used to — no, they listen to books while they vacuum, or drive, or exercise, which means that books are more and more coming to play a background role in peoples’ lives, like mood music, and one might reasonably ask whether audiobook reading is really reading at all, in any sense of the word. But that’s not what I would do. And what I did do, audially listen to Vox at a coffee shop over two protracted listening sessions, led to the slightly bizarre but revealing thing that happened because as soon as you introduce technology to the reading equation you introduce, as well, the possibility of “technical difficulties.”

And so what happened was, I didn’t, at the start of my second listening session, jam my headphone plug into my handheld electronic device nearly as far as I needed to for it to engage. Hence, when I turned the book back on, it picked up from where I’d left off the day before, and of course I still had the volume turned quite loud, and of course the coffee shop was crowded with quiet studiers, and, what happened was, the following line, really just a fragment, spoken by veteran stage, film, and audiobook actor Mark Boyett, playing Jim, suddenly burst into the room:
hundreds of female orgasms could be inferred from the books themselves — you didn’t need to harass any particular woman, you didn’t need to invade anybody’s privacy…
Boyett delivered these lines with exactly the kind of hurried, panting enthusiasm that comes from Jim’s words even when you read them just to yourself, and after this short, incomplete phrase, I managed to hit pause. But what was truly remarkable about the moment that followed was that none of the quiet studiers took any note of the voice at all.

This wasn’t the first time I’d experienced something like this. A few years ago, I was teaching in a small conservative college, and, one afternoon, I was seated in a booth in the school’s small, on-campus restaurant, and I was having a quiet lunch, and I was once again surrounded by quiet studiers, mostly students this time. But there were several televisions in the room, all tuned to the same daytime talk show, which no one was watching. I wasn’t watching either, I was grading papers, but my ears piqued when suddenly the panel of talking head hosts began discussing female ejaculation. Now I wouldn’t say that I have any particular interest in female ejaculation. I’m not preoccupied with it, and it’s not something that my mind drifts to all on its own. That said, I’m not averse to the idea of female ejaculation, and so when I heard female ejaculation mentioned quite loudly in an otherwise quiet room I looked up with the sort of expression that probably said something like, “Why, sure, I have a healthy curiosity about female ejaculation, so please, by all means, if you have something new to share on the subject, proceed!” The thing was, I was the only one. I was the only one in a room filled with mostly bored college students. Female ejaculation turned exactly one head in that room — mine.

I thought of this, of course, again, in the coffee shop, when I became, for a moment, an accidental broadcaster of the audiobook rendition of Vox. And once I had fumblingly fixed my headphone plug and settled back into my chair to finish my listening I realized that something actually quite important had been illustrated in that moment. That kind of passive, disinterested silence was about as far as you could get from the reception to Vox’s initial broadcast, its 1992 hardcover publication. This reception went both ways. On the one hand, the book was a giddy, trailblazing bestseller, with a healthy first printing of 50,000 copies and reports that the paperback rights — just the paperback rights — sold for more than a $100,000. But on the other hand, critically speaking, Vox was almost uniformly dismissed as a childish work, triggering a kind of critical anti-orgasm, an involuntary spasm of disgusted adjectives and puritanical claims that this sort of thing was simply beneath a writer of Nicholson Baker’s many talents.

Praise of his heavily footnoted first novel The Mezzanine aside, this pretty much characterizes Baker’s early career. He fairly often received middling reviews from peers doomed to obscurity, and, oddly, he also found himself subject to bizarre assaults from far more celebrated authors. Indeed, no lesser a light than Stephen King seeped out from the woodwork to cast churlish judgment on Baker’s first two books, The Mezzanine and the even lovelier Room Temperature, which I have to point out are pretty distinct from King’s horror genre — I’m tempted to say they’re not “horrible” in the way King’s books are — and you sort of have to wonder what button of King’s Baker had managed to punch to have solicited the evil eye from the reigning puppetmaster of evil eyes. Similarly, Martin Amis, in an essay reprinted in Visiting Mrs. Nabokov, lashed out at Vox itself with a blasé and mostly unquotable claim that there wasn’t much there there, so there!

And then there’s Philip Roth. Roth didn’t attack Baker, but he did plagiarize him. Sabbath’s Theatre, published in 1995, includes a long phone sex conversation, a conversation embedded in a very, very Bakerian-style footnote that stretches across 20 pages. Three years after Vox spent a couple months on the bestseller list, and eight years after The Mezzanine reintroduced the footnote to literature, Roth churned out passages like this one, depicting Mickey Sabbath’s fiber-optic seduction of a student:
Oh, I’ll bite on your nipples. Your beautiful pink nipples…Oh, it’s filling up with come now. It’s filling up with hot, thick come. It’s filling up with hot white come. It’s going to shoot out. Want me to come in your mouth?
You might be able to tell where I’m going with this. Because Sabbath’s Theatre was not dismissed as childish or beneath Roth’s many talents. No. It won Roth his second National Book Award and was a finalist for the 1996 Pulitzer Prize. (He lost to Richard Ford’s Independence Day, which, for what it’s worth, also features, briefly, a young female writing student sexually involved with her professor.)

To be fair, New York Times reviewer Michiko Kakutani did lash out at both books. Sabbath’s Theatre, she wrote, was “distasteful and disingenuous,” and Vox was “not particularly revealing or emotionally involving.” But to this I have to say that if a book’s longevity matters at all, if it matters what books people actually keep talking about, or keep reading, or keep audially listening to, then I think it’s fair to say that Kakutani was wrong on both counts. And I’d further say that Vox, though there can be only anecdotal evidence for this, is talked about these days far more often than Sabbath’s Theatre.

But that doesn’t explain why a snippet of the book, or, for that matter, female ejaculation, can fall so flat, these days, when broadcast to the general public. I have a theory about this. What the phenomenon of Vox demonstrates, I think, is a combination of the one old saw about how great books either create a movement or destroy one, and the other old saw about how saints are murdered for the originality of their revelations, and what I want to suggest is that Vox, precisely because it was a good book that left an indelible mark on our world and paved the way for other books that would exceed its celebrity and acclaim — precisely for all this good the book did, for the change it made, it was chided and attacked, and, critically speaking, burned at the stake. The good news is that when you murder a saint you ensure his immortality.

So maybe, now, when we read Vox, we don’t just read the book for its original effects, we read it for its historical value, we read it to remember the world to which it delivered a violent but much-needed chest compression. And perhaps what the exercise of reading an audiobook in public does is recreate that odd life-giving jolt. Because imagine me sitting in my comfy coffee shop chair, nothing in my hands, earbuds in, simply scanning the crowd as Jim and Abby’s voices co-created sexy stories. It would be disingenuous of me not to admit that I sometimes projected those strangers into the book, imagined each of them as Jims and Abbys hovering over their laptops and tablets, occupying Internet chat rooms not really so different from Vox’s telephonic bordello. Truth be told, I drew their attention too, because Vox is a funny book, and I sometimes laughed at it, which means that I was a guy sitting in a chair, appearing to be doing nothing but staring at my fellow coffee drinkers, occasionally giggling. One woman began glancing back at me with a slightly-more-than-worried kind of regularity, and sometime into that second listening session I think I became one of those guys that you sort of need to keep surreptitious track of in public. Indeed, for 20 or more of those coffee regulars I was probably added to an internal database of local potential perverts. But that’s unfair! Because not only does Vox lack the kind of criminal trespass that Mickey Sabbath’s phone sex chat in Sabbath’s Theatre depicts, it’s actually just a simple love story. Michiko Kakutani, I’m sorry, but you missed it. The end of Vox is a quite moving exchange, as, after Jim and Abby’s respective climaxes, they make tentative plans to connect again. It’s a heartfelt goodbye, and it’s very “emotionally involving.” And if it seemed odd to you, my fellow coffee drinkers, that I would sit there for several hours, sometimes laughing, sometimes cringing, and finally getting a little teary — well, what I must insist is that you understand that I was not a pervert. I was not weird, or bored, or crazy. No. I was reading.

The Academy of Rambling-On: On Bohumil Hrabal’s Fiction

1.
This year, to celebrate the centennial of the great Czech writer Bohumil Hrabal, the University of Chicago Press published an early short-story collection previously unavailable in English. Rambling On: An Apprentice’s Guide to the Gift of Gab was written and published in the 1960s, a mid-career work bringing together some of his best short fiction, like “The Feast” and “A Moonlit Night.”

In the final story, “An Apprentice’s Guide to the Gift of Gab,” written by Hrabal as part postscript, part manifesto, he writes,

I’m a corresponding member of the Academy of Rambling-on, a student at the Department of Euphoria, my god is Dionysos, a drunken, sensuous young man, jocundity given human form, my church father is the ironic Socrates, who patiently engages with anybody so as to lead them by the tongue and through language to the very threshold of nescience, my first-born son is Jaroslav Hašek, the inventor of the cock-and-bull story and a fertile genius and scribe who added human flesh to the firmament of prose and left writing to others, with unblinking lashes I gaze into the blue pupils of this Holy Trinity without attaining the acme of vacuity, intoxication without alcohol, education without knowledge, inter urinas et faeces nascimur.(We are born between urine and feces.)

Bohumil Hrabal was born near the beginning of World War I in Brno, in the Austro-Hungarian empire. He was raised by a gallery of colorful relatives, including an uncle who served as an early model for the gregarious and unscrupulous type that populated his later novels. His legal studies at Charles University in Prague were interrupted by the Second World War. After the Communists took over, he worked as a stage hand and industrial worker. He published one book of poetry in the late 1940s, but didn’t publish fiction until he was 42.

When he did begin writing stories and novels, his methods for composing fiction were radical. According to David Short, one of his translators, the Czech writer was a prolific cut-and-paste stylist. The expansive tone and patient rhythms of Hrabal’s writing belies just how drastic his revisions were. According to Short, Hrabal uses “words unknown to anyone;” his cryptologisms still confound lexicographers.

Married in 1956, Hrabal traveled between a co-op flat in a northern district of Prague and a chalet in the Kersko in central Czechoslovakia. He routinely fled the cramped Soviet-style apartment for the more idyllic countryside. A film adaptation of his novel Closely Watched Trains came out in 1967, and it won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film, a high point of the Czech New Wave. According to the film historian Philip Kerr, Hrabal preferred the movie over his novel. Less than two years after the high point of his success, the Soviets invaded, removed the reformer Alexander Dubček, and initiated “normalization.”

In post-normalization Czechoslovakia, his manuscripts were heavily censored by the publisher Československý Spisovatel. Nevertheless, Hrabal was being praised internationally as a prose master. He influenced Philip Roth and Louise Erdich. Roth, as the editor of the series Writers from the Other Europe, called Hrabal, in 1990, “one of the greatest living European prose writers” and it’s difficult to imagine the barbed mania of Sabbath’s Theater or the absurd feast scene in American Pastoral without Hrabal’s earlier Dancing Lessons for the Advanced in Age or I Served the King of England.

During the 1970s and 1980s, Hrabal was noticeably silent and did not sign Charter 77. In the cant of Soviet occupation, he “released self-critical statements that made it possible for him to publish.” He died in 1997, after falling out of a fifth-floor hospital window while feeding a cat.

2.
“Ambiguous” and “ambivalent” are overworked terms in the critic’s vocabulary, and vague. The words are accurate for Hrabal, though: a writer engaged with how meaning can shift in the telling and understanding of a story. He dramatizes story-telling (anecdotes, confession, harangue) and he also dramatizes interpretation. Hrabal is preoccupied with how a story can seem to change with an alteration of mood or perspective. How, to pick up a concept from Ludwig Wittgenstein, understanding is deeply aspectual.

In his posthumously published Philosophical Investigations, Wittgenstein explained this concept of “seeing-as.” First, you see a man’s face. Then, you might see a resemblance between the face and another face, a familial resemblance. You haven’t seen the face differently, but an “aspect” of the face has “dawned on you.” You now see the face as resembling another face.

Or take the picture of the “duck-rabbit:” Looking at the picture, you might see the “duck,” then see the “rabbit.” There’s a cognitive shift between seeing the one and seeing the other. Nothing has changed about the picture. Wittgenstein writes, “I distinguish between the ‘continuous seeing’ of an aspect and the ‘dawning’ of an aspect.”

Wittgenstein writes: “If you ask me what I saw, perhaps I shall be able to make a sketch which shows you; but I shall mostly have no recollection of the way my glance shifted in looking at it.”

Produced in the Academy of Rambling-on, at the Department of Euphoria, Hrabal’s fiction teases out these effects. His protagonists begin as typically superficial readers, who linger on those damaged surfaces or mordant anecdotes for a little longer than they’re comfortable with. They glimpse briefly past the equivocations and the evasions. Finally, their tone becomes urgent and fraught, and their perspective begins to disintegrate.

Translated by Short, the story “Friends” takes up what seems like a hopelessly trite premise, two handicapped friends who teach a friend a deeper life lesson:

And the two friends each had their own truth, their moral fibre was so awesome that all who knew Lothar and Pavel, however slightly, if ever they were a bit despondent, if ever they began to wonder if life was worth living under such-and-such conditions, they’d all…, me too, when, at moments of such blasphemous thoughts, I think of Pavel and Lothar, I feel ashamed of myself compared to the moral compass that backs Pavel and Lothar’s view of the world.

Drawing inspiration from the handicapped? A cliché, sure. Editors who draw a red line through each “batted eyelash” or “on the horizon,” though, would be well-advised to read Hrabal closely, because he understands how cliché eloquently obscures fatigue, despair, and tragedy — writers who work under juntas and dictatorships are especially familiar with the sinister authority of cliches.

Hrabal turns the cliché inside out toward the end of the story. The narrator accompanies them on a trip in which they are bizarrely hassled by a police officer who is interested in how well Lothar speaks Czech. He takes them home and then waits outside the house, watching the two men struggle up the stairs.

I saw Lothar disappear from his wheelchair and then I saw him, like when soldiers crawl through hostile territory, haul himself up with his powerful arms one step at a time, dragging his powerless legs behind him…and then Pavel the same, by his elbows… and I saw how they both had to pause half-way, how though the trip to the pub hadn’t got the better of them, those twelve stairs had, and they had to summon all their strength, turn and turn about, to haul themselves up to the top.

The protagonist Ditie, of Hrabal’s masterpiece I Served the King of England, hides behind cliché, too. Ditie repeats the phrase, “how the unbelievable came true,” in the novel, by my count 12 times.

But the narrator’s trite expressions seem to gloss over his own moral dubiousness. One of the finest novels of the 20th century, I Served the King of England was written in 1971, only a few years after the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia and the removal of President Dubcek from office. Shortly thereafter, Hrabal began working on the novel, a searing indictment of Czech complicity during World War II, with a protagonist that affects powerlessness and servility.

After being inspected by Nazi doctors for his suitability to marry and procreate with a German woman, Ditie marries Lise. She brings him a suitcase full of stamps. “At first I didn’t realize how valuable the contents were,” the narrator explains, “because it was full of postage stamps, and I wondered how Lise had come by them.” She explains to him that “after the war they would be worth a fortune, enough to buy us any hotel we wanted.”

As the Nazis are losing battles, Ditie is mistaken for a resistance fighter — according to his explanations, he is often mistaken for being much worse (a thief, a murderer) and much better than he actually is (an anti-Nazi fighter and activist several times). The interrogation becomes a happy accident, since his being targeted by the Nazis will gain him purchase as a subversive in post-war Prague. After being released, Ditie helps an elderly prisoner on a long journey to his home.

“I was doing this not out of any kindness,” Ditie explains, while hesitating to return home, “but to give myself as many alibis as possible once the war was over, and it would be over before we knew it.”

Though Ditie goes to great lengths to exculpate himself from the horrors of Nazism, his own alibi-forging strains credibility: how could he have married a woman like Lise and not recognized her involvement? Wouldn’t the gaps and evasions in his story indicate a more significant crime? Is his confession more significant because of the large-scale omissions that seem implied?

3.
Hrabal, following Joyce, offers up several instances of how mirrors and reflections can misapprehend our true selves, or how we can misapprehend ourselves in reflection. In Joyce’s “Araby,” the narrator’s reflection gives rise to misconceived feelings of piety and self-loathing.

Hrabal picked up the theme in I Served the King of England. The main character becomes a waiter in a prominent hotel and becomes entranced by how pomp can elide one’s own vulnerable identity:

I saw myself in the mirror carrying the bright Pilsner beer, I seemed different somehow, I saw that I’d have to stop thinking of myself as small and ugly. The tuxedo looked good on me here, and when I stood beside the headwaiter, who had curly gray hair that looked as though a hairdresser had done it, I could also see in the mirror that all I really wanted was to work right here at this station with this headwaiter, who radiated serenity, who knew everything there was to know…

Being a waiter requires Ditie to cultivate a kind of passive omniscience. The headwaiter, not Ditie, served the King of England. When a character asks how he knows that a couple is Bavarian, or how a customer likes his veal, the headwaiter simply says, “I served the King of England.”

High Culture is another way Hrabal’s protagonists conceal their motives. Like By Night in Chile’s priest-critic, Ditie’s confession is gilded with references to literature, culture, sophistication, but in stark denial of any moral purpose. The narrator of Dancing Lessons for the Advanced in Age tells his employer, “Like Goethe, I have a weak heart and was more inclined to poetry, which slowed them down for a while.” Ditie is entranced by the rituals and culture of European decadence and hides behind them.

After a lavish feast during which the exiled Ethiopian leader Haile Selassie honors him with a sash, the protagonist is accused of stealing a spoon. Devastated, he takes a taxi to a remote spot in the countryside. He laughs and tells the taxi driver he plans to hang himself. He says it impulsively, but saying the words propels him inextricably towards suicide.

Seriously? The cab driver said, laughing. With what? He was right, I had nothing to do it with, so I said, My handkerchief. The driver got out of his cab, opened the trunk, rummaged around with a flashlight, then handed me a piece of rope. Still laughing, he made an eye in one end and ran the other end through it to make a noose and showed me the proper way to hang myself.

Ditie stumbles into the stand of darkened woods.

I made up my mind to hang myself. As I knelt there, I felt something touch my head, so I reached up and touched the toes of a pair of boots, and then I groped higher and felt two ankles, then socks covering a pair of cold legs. When I stood up, my nose was right up against the stomach of a hanged man.

That reversal might seem familiar. Philip Roth re-imagined the scene in Sabbath’s Theater, a novel deeply influenced by Hrabal. In that scene, the puppeteer Mickey Sabbath has gone to his mistress’s grave to pay homage by writhing in the dirt and simulating sex. As he’s approaching the grave, he sees another figure near the grave:

When Sabbath saw Lewis bending over the grave to place the bouquet on the plot, he thought, But she’s mine! She belongs to me!

What Lewis did next was such an abomination that Sabbath reached crazily about in the dark for a rock or a stick with which to rush forward and beat the son of a bitch over the head. Lewis unzipped his fly…

Roth follows Hrabal in a mode of amplified realism — never magical but wryly attuned to absurdity — and featuring narrators and protagonists whose appetites match their verbosity. Hrabal’s palpable influence, acknowledged by writers such as Roth and Erdich, is a reminder of how vital his work has been to American contemporary fiction.

4.
Months before the Velvet Revolution, at a time when the Czech Communist party was showing its frailty but its decline did not seem inevitable, Hrabal reported on Czech politics in early 1989, with excerpts appearing in the New York Review of Books. He wrote in direct, austere sentences, as if acknowledging that irony was giving way to deeper melancholy impulses:

I walked down deserted Parizska Avenue. A police car quietly pulled up at the curb, a man got out and began quietly placing parking tickets on the windshields of illegally parked cars, then quietly the headlights turned toward Maison Oppelt, from the fifth floor of which Franz Kafka once wanted to jump, and then I stood all alone in the square. The place was deserted. I sat down on a bench and began to reflect…In front of me loomed the monument to Master Jan Hus.

In his afterword to Rambling On, Václav Kadlec points out how Hrabal had begun to focus on longer fiction by the late 1960s, eventually leading to the triumph of I Served the King of England and Too Loud a Solitude. But Hrabal was a great short-story writer, whose works were strained with pathos, absurdity, and beauty. The stories in Rambling On also show a unique range, partly because in 1960s Czechoslovakia, he was able to experiment with theme and language more freely and partly because he is still deciding on a tone, a style, and a subject.

Read the stories. Read the novels. Just read Hrabal.

The Art of the Opening Sentence

“To start with, look at all the books.”

This is how Jeffrey Eugenides opens his novel The Marriage Plot, and it may as well be the opening of my life. I am surrounded by piles and piles (and, seriously, piles) of books. In my office, my bedroom, the bathroom. My girlfriend’s always annoyed with the stacks that appear as if by magic on our living room coffee table. She counts them, and then says, “Fourteen books? Really?”

Well, I want to say, yeah. Really. Fourteen books. What do you want from me?

So in the interest of proving the worth of all of these piles, recently I’ve been writing essays about them. Some of them I’ve published. My essay “The Art of the Epigraph,” published a few weeks ago right here on The Millions, came out of my desperate ploy. Now, I’m turning my attention to opening sentences. Why? Well, first, because I have a prodigious and unembarrassed passion for opening sentences. But also: Look at all the goddamn books.

I tend to prefer opening sentences that get right to the point, so I’m just going to state right off the bat that this essay intends to analyze a handful of opening sentences from classic to recent novels and examine their effects. Opening sentences have long fascinated me, so much so that I’ve even made a point to memorize the beginnings of most of the books I read. This is what I do with my time. If possible, I love opening sentences even more than epigraphs. If I were ever a contestant on Jeopardy!, and “Opening Sentences” popped up in one of the blue boxes, I would destroy that category.

Like any reader, when I pick up a book, I open it and check out the first words. I’m not looking for anything specific. Actually, what I love about opening sentences is the complete lack of rules, how each writer gets to decide how best to guide a reader into their narrative. A writer, after all, is the instructor for the experience of their own work, and the opening sentence––after the book design, title, and epigraph––is among the reader’s first impressions. Opening sentences are not to be written lightly.

But how do they work? What’s makes a good one effective? Is there a better way to do it? Or is it a creative free-for-all?

As a teen, I became enamored of the 19th-century standard: that of the Grand Declaration, a way of establishing the high themes of the work. We know these openings by heart: “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way,” from Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina; “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife,” from Austen’s Pride and Prejudice; and, of course, Dickens’s “It was the best of times; it was the worst of times…” from A Tale of Two Cities. When I first came upon these novels, these declarations thrilled me, as they implied high-mindedness, a lofty ambition of subject, even if that subject was treated satirically, as in Austen’s case. The absolutist vibe they gave off made the work itself feel chiseled into rock, as if each word were crafted to unimpeachable perfection. As a fledgling novelist, I now see the malleability of fiction, its fluidity, how it is never as hard as stone, how, at most, it only appears that way. The Grand Declaration has, thankfully, mostly fallen out of fashion, though our reverence for these famous sentences persists. They’re great lines, to be sure, but readers know by now that a novel is a perfect place for moral, emotional, political, and spiritual investigation. We don’t need to be cued into the game so directly.

Later, writers offered increasingly subtle and idiosyncratic opening lines. Woolf’s “Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself,” expressed a woman’s small claim of autonomy. Ken Kesey established the mood of paranoia of authority in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest with, “They’re out there.” J.D. Salinger distinguished his novel’s famous protagonist from a particular famous protagonist of the past with the honesty of his voice and the statement contained in the opening:
If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.
Contained in each of the above sentences is something crucial to the novel it opens, all without stating it outright. Much can be accomplished in seemingly straightforward prose.

It would be easy to think of opening sentences as somehow representative of the rest of the book, as exemplifying some quintessence of the novel’s aims, but this isn’t––and shouldn’t––always be so. Take D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover, which opens with, “Ours is essentially a tragic age, so we refuse to take it tragically,” and goes on to describe the state of life after WWI. The pronouns here­­––the first-person-plurals “our” and “we”––are not used in the rest of the book, which stays firmly in third person. The line immediately following this section is: “This was more or less Constance Chatterley’s position.” The switch from first- to third-person places us squarely into the mind and story of Lady Chatterley, and makes us, because of their aberrance, remember those lines as we read on. Does the “tragic age” remain tragic? Or, as Doris Lessing puts it, will “England…be saved through warm-hearted fucking”?

Jumping ahead a number of decades, let’s examine another work in which the opening line is far from representative of the style to follow. Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections starts with curiously ill-fitting grandness: “The madness of an autumn prairie cold front coming through. You could feel it: something terrible was going to happen.” Isolated, this is a wonderfully evocative opening, but once I read the rest of the book (which is utterly fantastic), I wondered about those first lines. They now seemed such a transparent attempt to elevate the book to classic status. On my second read, I came across this lit bit of dialogue from Chip, about his unsold and pretentious screenplay:
“My idea,” Chip said, “was to have this ‘hump’ that the moviegoer has to get over. Putting something offputting at the beginning, it’s a classic modernist strategy. There’s a lot of rich suspense toward the end.”
Is Franzen being meta here? Is he acknowledging the ill-fitting language of his opening when set against the “rich suspense” of the rest? It’s hard not to see Chip as the closest character resembling Franzen himself, who, before publishing The Corrections famously worried about the direction of the novel in his Harper’s essay “Why Bother?” He writes:

I resist, finally, the notion of literature as a noble higher calling, because elitism doesn’t sit well with my American nature, and because even if my belief in mystery didn’t incline me to distrust feelings of superiority, my belief in manners would make it difficult for me to explain to my brother, who is a fan of Michael Crichton, that the work I’m doing is simply better than Crichton’s.

Is The Corrections, which marked a significant shift in Franzen’s style, his way of leaving his past behind? Of declaring a new ambition for fiction? Maybe the following bit of dialogue captures how Franzen felt about his former fiction, and maybe about difficult social fiction in general: As Chip’s girlfriend (who couldn’t make it all the way through his script) leaves him, he tries to convince her of the opening’s value: “You see, though,” he says, “the entire story is prefigured in that monologue. Every single theme is there in capsule form––gender, power, identity, authenticity––and the thing is…Wait. Wait. Julia?” Though Chip’s argument is probably reasonably founded, no one really cares about prefiguring themes in capsule form. Readers aren’t necessarily looking for structural innovations or cerebral thematic overtures. More likely, they’re looking, as Franzen himself wrote, “for a way out of loneliness.”

I do not mean to suggest that great, classic novels can’t begin simply and straightforwardly, in a style that is illustrative of the novel it opens. In fact, it’s the more common practice. But that fact does not diminish the power or the greatness of any work. Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment, for instance, gets right into the story, like the thriller it is: “Early one evening, during an exceptional heat wave in the beginning of July, a young man walked out into the street from the closetlike room he rented on Stoliarny Place.” From there, we are thrust into the mind of Raskolnikov and his murderous, immoral descent. Any other kind of opening would have been unnecessary.

A novelist teaches the reader how to read the novel, and along the way they express innumerable opinions about their view of literature in relation to this one work. Dostoyevsky didn’t believe that Crime and Punishment needed a conspicuous opening. (It needed a quotidian introduction with hints of aberrance. The “exceptional heat wave” (implying tension, heat, murkiness, anger) pops out of the routine, and so although Raskolnikov attempts to act naturally and arouse no suspicion, the reader knows––subtly, maybe inexpressibly––that something is amiss. (Regular life, this isn’t.) But Dostoyevsky did think his incredible short novel Notes from Underground ought to start ostentatiously: “I am a sick man…I am a spiteful man.” You do not get any grander than that.

In other words, a portion of our measurement of an opening line’s efficacy must be contextual. How does it set up what follows? From what perspective is it written? Where does it take us? And yet, it must also be judged completely on its own, for if a novel starts slowly, unpromisingly, no one will want to continue. Inserting something “offputting” at the beginning, despite what Chip thinks, is generally a really stupid idea.

Two of the best novels of last year open with sentences that are simple, straightforward and representative of the whole, and they both get right to the point. Meg Wolitzer’s beautiful and funny novel The Interestings begins like this: “On a warm night in early July of that long-evaporated year, the Interestings gathered for the very first time.” Simple, direct, yet enticing––suggestive of a history about to unfold. See, this is an opening aimed at both establishing the focus and the narrative. The Interestings are nothing more than a group of artists who meet at a summer camp in 1974 when they’re fifteen and sixteen years old. They named themselves The Interestings. Still, with this sentence Wolitzer imbues a sense of grandeur––a kind of historical importance––to the story of these friends as they age, as they wax and wane in their careers, and as they struggle to stay together. They all grow up, eventually, but when they first met, when they were teens, they believed they were important, destined for fame, fortune, critical respect––and the opening sentence reflects that.

Eleanor Catton’s whopper of a masterpiece, the Booker Prize-winning The Luminaries, is set in nineteenth-century New Zealand, and its language harkens back to those big Victorian novels. It is undoubtedly a tale––no other word for it––with rousing adventure and ridiculously complex intrigue and mystery. It also features an enormous cast and a narrative that moves through all of their points of view. How does one begin such a novel? How does a writer set the style, hint at its high population, and yet still retain the enigmatic air of a tale? Here’s how Catton answers those questions: “The twelve men congregated in the smoking room of the Crown Hotel gave the impression of a party accidentally met.” Pretty perfect, right? In this short, direct sentence, you’ve got the large cast (twelve men), the period and atmosphere (smoking room), and the air of mystery: why have these men met? Do they know each other? Who are they? But Catton does one better with the next sentence:
From the variety of their comportment and dress­­––frock coats, tailcoats, Norfolk jackets with buttons of horn, yellow moleskin, cambric, and twill––they might have been twelve strangers on a railway car, each bound for a separate quarter of a city that possessed fog and tides enough to divide them; indeed, the studied isolation of each man as he pored over his paper, or leaned forward to tap his ashes into the grate, or placed the splay of his hand upon the baize to take his shot at billiards, conspired to form the very type of bodily silence that occurs, late in the evening, on a public railway––deadened here not by the slur and clunk of the coaches, but by the fat clatter of the rain.
Come on! How masterful is that stretch of writing? How evocative, how eloquent, how, how…inviting. As soon as I read those words, I knew I would read all 834 pages of The Luminaries, and quickly. And I did: I blazed through it at (at least) a hundred-and-fifty-page-a-day pace. Everything in the novel is, like Chip’s screenplay, “prefigured” in that opening. Except here, Catton’s work is so sly, so skillfully wrought you’d have to read the whole thing to even begin to understand how expertly Catton guided you as a reader.

Catton, by the way, is twenty-eight years old.

Both Wolitzer’s and Catton’s openings skirt grandness and express no overarching theme directly. They are elegant and direct, but that doesn’t mean they are only accomplishing one thing. Often the most artful way to communicate something is when it is couched within ostensible artlessness.

Then, of course, there are the allusive openings, the ones that, to use a crass verb, borrow from the work of their forebears. Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle references what is perhaps the most famous opening line ever, “Call me Ishmael,” from Melville’s Moby Dick. Melville’s line, more than simply being famous, is also one of the most complex (and economic, at three words). First, this narrator is talking to us, and in a friendly, almost conspiratorial way. Second, someone asking you to call them something usually means it’s not their real name, so “Ishmael” appears a tad suspicious. Third, the reference to the Biblical Ishmael (son of Abraham, half-brother of Isaac, ancestor of the Arab peoples) hints at our narrator’s exiled status.

Vonnegut plays a great joke on Melville’s line in Cat’s Cradle: “Call me Jonah. My parents did. Or nearly did. They called me John.” Again, the same direct, conversational tone toward the reader; again, the discrepancy between given name and chosen name (except here, we’re given his real name); and again, the Biblical reference. And that’s the great joke: the Book of Jonah tells the story of a man who is––you guessed it––swallowed by a whale. Vonnegut’s Jonah, through his adventures on the mysterious island of San Lorenzo, gets swallowed by much bigger whales––religion and politics.

Zadie Smith’s allusive opening of On Beauty isn’t nearly as cheeky as Vonnegut’s (after all, how many people in the world are as cheeky as Vonnegut?). Her novel begins: “One may as well begin with Jerome’s e-mails to his father,” and proceeds to do just that. This is an update of the opening of E.M. Forster’s Howards End, which goes: “One may as well begin with Helen’s letters to her sisters.” Smith’s is a respectful nod, a deferential ode to a writer “to whom,” she writes, “all my fiction is indebted.” But Smith goes one further: her protagonist is named after Forster’s titular house, and, considering what happens to Howard in On Beauty, Smith’s novel may have borrowed Forster’s title as well, with one addition: an apostrophe between the d and s in Howards. (Instead, Smith borrow her title from Elaine Scarry’s essay “On Beauty and Being Just.”)

Allusions are risky, as they can fall flat very easily. I’ve seen numerous stories that, for example, open with something similar to Kafka’s famous, “As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect,” from The Metamorphosis. Most of these referential lines are just plain bad. Recently, Haruki Murakami showed that a writer could tackle Kafka’s famous sentence with wit and originally. His story “Samsa in Love” from The New Yorker takes this approach: “He woke to discover that he had undergone a metamorphosis and become Gregor Samsa.” Now that’s interesting. In Kafka’s time, the idea of changing into a bug was novel, terrifying, and confounding. We’re used to such a premise by this point. Now, our great terror would be becoming a Kafka character.

But, you know, that’s Murakami. Most writers aren’t as imaginative.

And last but not least are those openings that provoke, that immediately stun a reader with brutal frankness. Philip Roth’s Sabbath Theater is a dark, twisted novel, full of sexual explicitness and moral ambiguity, and Roth wastes no time letting a reader know this: “Either forswear fucking others or the affair is over.” This ultimatum comes from Mickey Sabbath’s mistress, and it aptly captures the strange, strict limitations sex and love can force upon us, even when they are “maddeningly improbable.” Roth really does his reader a favor––if you’re not comfortable with this level of candidness, this isn’t the novel for you. Because, oh yeah, it only goes down (or up, depending on your view) from there.

Toni Morrison’s Paradise famously provides immediate and heartbreaking shock: “They shot the white girl first. With the rest they can take their time.” The massacre at the Convent sets up the complex and tragic tale of Ruby, Oklahoma, an all-black community. We never learn who the “white girl” is; she joins the list of millions––billions, even––of the anonymous dead. Morrison, no stranger to frankness, is particularly good at opening her books. A Mercy: “Don’t be afraid.” Song of Solomon: “The North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance agent promised to fly from Mercy to the other side of Lake Superior at three o’clock.” And, of course, Beloved: “124 was spiteful.” Morrison’s prose style is one-of-a-kind, and her ambition––to, in part, “work credibly and, perhaps, elegantly with a discredited vocabulary”––has more than been met, surpassed, even stunned into submission. These opening lines are her first punches.

I probably fetishize opening lines because, well, I’m a reader and a writer. As a reader, a really wonderful opening line makes me giddy with excitement. I nestle myself as deeply into my couch as I can go, and I accept the deal the novel has offered me. Yes, I will read the rest of you. You’ve earned it. As a writer, the opening line is the purest, most unadulterated part of a work. Before it, the blank page. After it, the whole of a story, a novel, a book. It is the division between nothing and something, the bridge between emptiness and fullness, between something in your head and something on the page. The opening sentence is the first utterance of life, the initial gasp of air that birth forces out.

Perhaps this would be better expressed through what is perhaps my favorite opening line from a recent novel. Colum McCann’s Let the Great World Spin revolves around Philippe Petit’s incredible guerilla tight-rope walk between the World Trade Center towers in 1974, and this is how it starts: “Those who saw him hushed.” The image of Philippe Petit does not need to be described here, though a beautiful image it undoubtedly is. McCann wisely focuses our attention to the people on the pavement. Their hush is full of more beauty than any description ever could be. This accurately captures how I feel about a great opening––hell, about great literature in general: it’s amazing and unbelievable, and although there is so much you can say about it, sometimes all I can do is shut up and witness.

Image via Thunderchild7/Flickr

The Prizewinners 2013/2014

With last month’s awarding of the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, the 2013/2014 literary award season is now over, which gives us the opportunity to update our list of prizewinners. Literary prizes are, of course, deeply arbitrary in many ways; such is the nature of keeping score in a creative field. Nonetheless, our prizewinners post is compiled in the same spirit that one might tally up Cy Young Awards and MVPs to determine if a baseball player should be considered for the Hall of Fame. These awards nudge an author towards the “canon” and help secure them places on literature class reading lists for decades to come.

2013/14 was a suprisingly diverse year when it comes to literary awards, with no single novel winning multiple awards and very little crossover on the shortlists. Only one book is climbing the ranks this year. Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, which won the Pulitzer and was on the National Book Critics Circle shortlist.

Next year, we will need to make some changes to our methodology. When compiling this list, I wanted to include both American books and British books, as well as the English-language books from other countries that are eligible to win some of these awards. I started with the National Book Award and the Pulitzer from the American side and the Booker and Costa (formerly the Whitbread) from the British side. Because I wanted the British books to “compete” with the American books, I also looked at a couple of awards that recognize books from both sides of the ocean, the National Book Critics Circle Awards and the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. The IMPAC is probably the weakest of all these, but since it is both more international and more populist than the other awards, I thought it added something. However, now that the Booker Prize will be open to English-language books from all over the world, including the U.S., the panel of awards is now lopsided in favor of the U.S. Is there another British-only award that we can use to replace the Booker next year?

I looked at these six awards from 1995 to the present, awarding three points for winning an award and two points for an appearance on a shortlist or as a finalist. Here’s the key that goes with the list: B=Booker Prize, C=National Book Critics Circle Award, I=International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, N=National Book Award, P=Pulitzer Prize, W=Costa Book Award (formerly the Whitbread) bold=winner, red=New to the list or moved up* the list since last year’s “Prizewinners” post

*Note that the IMPAC considers books a year after the other awards do, and so this year’s IMPAC shortlist nods were added to point totals from last year.

11, 2003, The Known World by Edward P. Jones – C, I, N, P
9, 2001, The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen – C, I, N, P
8, 2010, A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan – C, I, P
8, 2009, Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel – B, C, W
8, 2007, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz – C, I, P
8, 1997, Underworld by Don DeLillo – C, I, N, P
7, 2005, The March by E.L. Doctorow – C, N, P
7, 2004, Line of Beauty by Alan Hollinghurst – B, C, W
7, 2002, Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides – I, N, P
7, 2001, Atonement by Ian McEwan – B, C, W
7, 1998, The Hours by Michael Cunningham – C, I, P
7, 1997, Last Orders by Graham Swift – B, I, W
7, 1997, Quarantine by Jim Crace – B, I, W
>6, 2012, Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel – B, W
6, 2009, Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann – N, I
6, 2009, Home by Marilynn Robinson – C, N, I
6, 2005, The Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai – B, C
6, 2004, Gilead by Marilynn Robinson – C, P
5, 2013, The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt – P, C
5, 2012, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain – C, N
5, 2012, The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson – C, P
5, 2011, Binocular Vision by Edith Pearlman – C, N
5, 2011, The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes – B, W<
5, 2009, Brooklyn by Colm Tóibín – W, I
5, 2008, The Secret Scripture by Sebastian Barry – B, W
5, 2008, Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout – C, P
5, 2007, Tree of Smoke by Denis Johnson – N, P
5, 2006, The Road by Cormac McCarthy – C, P
5, 2006, The Echo Maker by Richard Powers – N, P
5, 2005, Europe Central by William T. Vollmann – C, N
5, 2005, The Accidental by Ali Smith – B, W
5, 2004, The Master by Colm Tóibín – B, I
5, 2003, The Great Fire by Shirley Hazzard – I, N
5, 2001, True History of the Kelly Gang by Peter Carey – B, I
5, 2000, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon – C, P
5, 2000, The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood – B, I
5, 1999, Waiting by Ha Jin – N, P
5, 1999, Disgrace by J.M. Coetzee – B, C
5, 1999, Being Dead by Jim Crace – C, W
5, 1998, Charming Billy by Alice McDermott – I, N
5, 1997, American Pastoral by Philip Roth – C, P
5, 1996, Every Man for Himself by Beryl Bainbridge – B, W
5, 1996, Martin Dressler: The Tale of an American Dreamer by Steven Millhauser – N, P
5, 1995, The Moor’s Last Sigh by Salman Rushdie – B, W
5, 1995, The Ghost Road by Pat Barker – B, W
5, 1995, Independence Day by Richard Ford – C, P
5, 1995, Sabbath’s Theater by Philip Roth – N, P

Life and Counterlife: Roth Unbound by Claudia Roth Pierpont

I went to college in the late nineties, when any mention of Philip Roth was prefaced with the label “misogynist.” As a result, I did not read him until I was out of school and attempting to catch up on contemporary fiction. I read Portnoy’s Complaint and Goodbye, Columbus back-to-back, expecting to be at least mildly shocked by the subject of these two controversial-in-their-time books. Instead I was more startled by the difference in tone; Portnoy’s barreling comic monologue seemed to have nothing in common with the traditional realism of Goodbye, Columbus. How could this even be the same writer? I decided I had to read more Roth, misogynist or not, and I’ve been reading him ever since. I tend to go on Roth binges, reading three or four of his books in a row. Eventually I get worn out (his books, at least for me, require a lot of concentration) and I take a couple years off until say, the New York Times publishes a list of the best American works of fiction of the past 25 years and six of Roth’s novels receive mention. Or maybe a librarian friend tells me I have to read The Counterlife, that it’s secretly the best Roth, the writer’s Roth.

Claudia Roth Pierpont’s Roth Unbound, a new critical study of Roth’s books, brought me back to Roth again, this time to Sabbath’s Theater, a novel that has been sitting unread on my bookshelf for several years. Pierpont has also persuaded me to take a look at a couple of Roth’s short late books, Exit Ghost and Nemesis. She’s an unabashed Roth enthusiast, so if you’re looking for a provocative critique that delves into the less flattering aspects of his career and persona, then this is not the book for you. But if you’re someone like me, someone who has read Roth on and off for years in a haphazard way, then this book may help to fill in the gaps in your understanding, both in the way it puts Roth’s work in a larger context (social, political, historical) and through its gentle (but astute) assessment of his books.

Pierpont’s approach is straightforward: she reports on each of his books in chronological order, providing reviews of the books, summaries of their critical reception, and, when relevant to the book’s subject matter or creation, details from Roth’s own life. Roth and his books are her primary sources, and in her introduction, Pierpont explains that Roth Unbound began as an essay but turned into a book for two reasons: first, because Roth had written so many books, and second, because he was willing to talk to her about them for hours at a time.

Pierpont’s access comes out of a long friendship with Roth, which began in 2002, after Pierpont, a staff writer at The New Yorker, wrote an article about the anthropologist Franz Boas, someone Roth had researched while writing his (then) most recent novel The Plot Against America. Roth often writes letters to writers he admires, and in the case of Pierpont, it turned into a genuine exchange, with Pierpont eventually becoming a first reader of drafts of his novels. Pierpont’s previous book of criticism, Passionate Minds: Women Rewriting The World, is a series of portraits of female artists, including Mae West, Doris Lessing, and Margaret Mitchell. It’s easily one of my favorite works of criticism, one that is especially sensitive to the particular obstacles female artists face. I would never have guessed that Roth would be the subject of her next book. But she is a good match for the material. In Passionate Minds, she marries biographical details to artworks in a way that illuminates both the artwork and the life, and she brings the same precision to Roth Unbound, always choosing just the right detail, and in some cases, just the right word.

Roth’s last book, Nemesis was published in 2010, capping a fifty-year career, and one thing that makes Roth Unbound interesting is that Pierpont was able to interview Roth in the first years of his retirement. You can feel Roth’s reflective, relaxed state of mind as he looks back on his career, cataloging his regrets and triumphs. His regrets mostly fall in the realm of his personal life, most significantly his first marriage, which he believes held him back, emotionally and artistically, for most of his late twenties and early thirties, years Roth now views as lost. Another low point occurred in the late nineties, when his ex-wife, Claire Bloom, wrote a memoir that included a scathing account of her marriage to Roth. The memoir had, in Pierpont’s words, “a tremendous effect on Roth’s personal reputation — perhaps more than anything since Portnoy’s Complaint.” Published in 1996, Bloom’s memoir interrupted a peak moment in his career, coming shortly after the publication of Sabbath’s Theater, which won the National Book Award in 1995, and just before American Pastoral, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1998. In retrospect, Roth sees the two books as related, novels whose “essential subject” is the “vulnerability, even of the apparently strong.” He also describes the creation of each book as an “outpouring.”

Roth’s insights into his own work are fascinating, but Pierpont’s are more instructive. She’s particularly good on describing his technique. I have always found Roth’s style difficult to grasp; is his prose playful or brutal? Is he telling a story or is he having a conversation? Sometimes he seems sentimental beneath his bluster, and at other times he seems determined to wipe every last bit of nostalgia off the face of the earth. Pierpont acknowledges these contradictions in her assessment:
His style has always been hard to characterize beyond the energy and concentration, the uncanny capturing of voices…He distrusts extended description — the glinting observations of a surrounding world that give Updike’s work its texture — and seems ever wary of the risks of pretentiousness or of diffusing the pressure of the voice.
The comparison to Updike is useful and one that Pierpont returns to several times in Roth Unbound. In one analogy, Pierpont likens Roth to Picasso, “the energy, the slashing power,” and Updike to Matisse, “the color, the sensuality”:
The essential difference in their perspectives isn’t so much Christian versus Jewish, or believer versus nonbeliever, or small town versus city, although it involves all of these. As writers, their greatest virtues seem to arise from different principal organs of perception, which might be crudely categorized as the eye and the ear. Updike was a painter in words…Roth is the master of voices: the arguments, the joke, the hysterical exchanges, the inner wrangling even when a character is alone, the sound of a mind at work.
It’s this mix of voices that makes Roth such an exciting (and sometimes exhausting) writer. It’s also, I think, what makes him so vulnerable to criticism. Just as his prose isn’t clearly beautiful, (as Updike’s is), his opinions are not clearly delineated. He refuses to write about his convictions, only “the comic and tragic consequences of holding convictions.” In fact, Pierpont reports, “there is hardly anything he considers more crucial to his work…one of the great strengths (and sources of confusion) in Roth’s novels — as opposed to his political satire — is that he rarely takes an open stand. Countervoices clutter up every discernible argument, even shout it down.”

The phrase “countervoices” is a reference to The Counterlife, Roth’s fifteenth novel, and one Roth considers a breakthrough, the book that taught him “how to enlarge, how to amplify, how to be free.” Pierpont references it through Roth Unbound, as shorthand for the way Roth uses his fiction to explore the lives he might have lived, the people he might have been or known, and even the alternative histories he might have witnessed. It also alludes to the way Roth has truly lived through his work, devoting hours and days and years to the slippery task of putting his restless mind into books. There will be biographies of Roth, with names and events and objective reporting of facts, but for a portrait of what occupied the majority of his time and thoughts — his fiction — I doubt there will be anything more revealing than this volume.

The Prizewinners 2012/2013

With last month’s awarding of the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, the 2012/2013 literary award season is now over, which gives us the opportunity to update our list of prizewinners. (In fact, 2013/2014 has already begun with the unveiling of the diverse Booker longlist.) Literary prizes are, of course, deeply arbitrary in many ways; such is the nature of keeping score in a creative field. Nonetheless, our prizewinners post is compiled in the same spirit that one might tally up Cy Young Awards and MVPs to determine if a baseball player should be considered for the Hall of Fame. These awards nudge an author towards the “canon” and help secure them places on literature class reading lists for decades to come.

There are three books climbing the ranks this year. Hilary Mantel’s Cromwell sequel Bring Up the Bodies landed fairly high on the list after sweeping both of Britain’s major literary awards (though the book hasn’t quite matched the hardware racked up by Mantel’s Wolf Hall). Meanwhile, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain and The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson both won notice from more than one literary prize last year.

Here is our methodology: I wanted to include both American books and British books, as well as the English-language books from other countries that are eligible to win some of these awards. I started with the National Book Award and the Pulitzer from the American side and the Booker and Costa (formerly the Whitbread) from the British side. Because I wanted the British books to “compete” with the American books, I also looked at a couple of awards that recognize books from both sides of the ocean, the National Book Critics Circle Awards and the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. The IMPAC is probably the weakest of all these, but since it is both more international and more populist than the other awards, I thought it added something. A glaring omission is the PEN/Faulkner, but it would have skewed everything too much in favor of the American books, so I left it out.

I looked at these six awards from 1995 to the present, awarding three points for winning an award and two points for an appearance on a shortlist or as a finalist. Here’s the key that goes with the list: B=Booker Prize, C=National Book Critics Circle Award, I=International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, N=National Book Award, P=Pulitzer Prize, W=Costa Book Award (formerly the Whitbread) bold=winner, red=New to the list or moved up* the list since last year’s “Prizewinners” post

*Note that the IMPAC considers books a year after the other awards do, and so this year’s IMPAC shortlist nods were added to point totals from last year.

11, 2003, The Known World by Edward P. Jones – C, I, N, P
9, 2001, The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen – C, I, N, P
8, 2010, A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan – C, I, P
8, 2009, Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel – B, C, W
8, 2007, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz – C, I, P
8, 1997, Underworld by Don DeLillo – C, I, N, P
7, 2005, The March by E.L. Doctorow – C, N, P
7, 2004, Line of Beauty by Alan Hollinghurst – B, C, W
7, 2002, Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides – I, N, P
7, 2001, Atonement by Ian McEwan – B, C, W
7, 1998, The Hours by Michael Cunningham – C, I, P
7, 1997, Last Orders by Graham Swift – B, I, W
7, 1997, Quarantine by Jim Crace – B, I, W
6, 2012, Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel – B, W
6, 2009, Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann – N, I
6, 2009, Home by Marilynn Robinson – C, N, I
6, 2005, The Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai – B, C
6, 2004, Gilead by Marilynn Robinson – C, P
5, 2012, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain – C, N
5, 2012, The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson – C, P
5, 2011, Binocular Vision by Edith Pearlman – C, N
5, 2011, The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes – B, W<
5, 2009, Brooklyn by Colm Tóibín – W, I
5, 2008, The Secret Scripture by Sebastian Barry – B, W
5, 2008, Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout – C, P
5, 2007, Tree of Smoke by Denis Johnson – N, P
5, 2006, The Road by Cormac McCarthy – C, P
5, 2006, The Echo Maker by Richard Powers – N, P
5, 2005, Europe Central by William T. Vollmann – C, N
5, 2005, The Accidental by Ali Smith – B, W
5, 2004, The Master by Colm Tóibín – B, I
5, 2003, The Great Fire by Shirley Hazzard – I, N
5, 2001, True History of the Kelly Gang by Peter Carey – B, I
5, 2000, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon – C, P
5, 2000, The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood – B, I
5, 1999, Waiting by Ha Jin – N, P
5, 1999, Disgrace by J.M. Coetzee – B, C
5, 1999, Being Dead by Jim Crace – C, W
5, 1998, Charming Billy by Alice McDermott – I, N
5, 1997, American Pastoral by Philip Roth – C, P
5, 1996, Every Man for Himself by Beryl Bainbridge – B, W
5, 1996, Martin Dressler: The Tale of an American Dreamer by Steven Millhauser – N, P
5, 1995, The Moor’s Last Sigh by Salman Rushdie – B, W
5, 1995, The Ghost Road by Pat Barker – B, W
5, 1995, Independence Day by Richard Ford – C, P
5, 1995, Sabbath’s Theater by Philip Roth – N, P

The League of Ordinary Gentlemen: A Conversation with Julian Barnes

Julian Barnes accepted an invitation to the Hay Festival in Cartagena last month, but said no interviews. There’s no point trying, said the press person. So of course I felt compelled to. That evening, I hustled him at the opening party on the Spanish ramparts of the Old City. There was salsa on the speakers and everywhere men and women in white linen were drinking dark rum. Barnes was strolling around, alone, with his hands in the pockets of his dark trousers, as if determined to let the Caribbean breeze have its way with his silver hair.

“No interviews,” he said promptly, smiling broadly down at me. And then, with a weary politeness: “Oh, all right then, just one question.”

I promptly chose the most random question in my head. “Do you like Ted Hughes?” I asked. “You mention him in The Sense of an Ending.”

I was referring to an early scene in the novel where a young English teacher puts his head “at a donnish slant” and says to the class, “Of course, we’re all wondering what will happen when he [Hughes] runs out of animals.” I had thought it very funny, and was rather irritated when the narrator’s superior girlfriend Veronica Mary Elizabeth Ford, didn’t. I knew from Barnes’ Paris Review interview that this was a joke his own schoolteacher had liked to make. Evidently, it had played in his head for years, before finally finding release here, in a novel about memory and nostalgia, written in his sixties.

Clearly amused at the question, Barnes replied, “I like the early Ted Hughes. You know, before he got all oracular.” And he made big Botero curves with his pale fingers to show what he meant.

“Hughes is taught quite a lot in India,” I chattered on to buy time. “As are Auden and Larkin.”

And, miraculously, with the mention of Larkin, the one-question guillotine was stayed. Barnes is a great admirer of this bitter English poet, whom he knew, and who is everywhere in his new novel, but anonymously, in the form of what Barnes calls “hidden quotes” that are attributed to “the poet.” Indeed, if Flaubert’s Parrot offers up a full-throated tribute to Barnes’s literary hero Gustave Flaubert, The Sense of an Ending does the opposite for Philip Larkin. But, said Barnes ruefully, the hidden quotes have all been spotted and laid out by Colm Toibin in the New York Review of Books – “making me wonder if I’d put too many in.” Of the quotes, the most pivotal to the plot is the one that says, “Damage a long way back.” It’s repeated several times in different contexts, and by the end of the story, each word in that short line is transfigured with remorse.

“I really liked the book,” I said. “But it left me very disturbed.”

“I’m so glad to hear that,” said Barnes, and wished me goodnight.

The next morning, to my delight, he sent word through a photographer that if I wanted a quarter of an hour, he’d be willing to chat. We met at the Santa Clara Hotel, one of the venues of the Hay Festival. The hotel is housed in what was once the spectral Santa Clara Convent, where Gabriel Garcia Marquez set Of Love and Other Demons, his novel on love and exorcism during the Spanish Inquisition. There is a thin chill in the hotel’s cavernous halls that has nothing to do with the aggressive air-conditioning. Happily, then, the conversation took place on a sunlit balcony overlooking a palm-lashed courtyard. The courtyard had an enormous black Botero nude that would have terrified the nuns.

When The Sense of an Ending won the Booker Prize in 2011, Salman Rushdie tweeted: “Congratulations to #JulianBarnes on winning the #Booker. Long overdue, my friend, Bravo.” Barnes has been a Booker bridesmaid three times, so Rushdie’s sentiment was amply shared by all those who have enjoyed Barnes’s cool and erudite prose and been unsettled by it. Over the last three decades he has written steadily, producing twenty books of novels, non-fiction, essays, short stories, and translation. The forms may have varied but the themes have remained constant: sex, death, and memory. These are potentially wild themes, but Barnes embeds them in bourgeois settings and allows the “great unrest” that sparks to vitalize his stories. He has the very English ability to dramatize the bland with understatement. Bland on bland action, but always on a bed of irony.

He also enjoys being funny. Flaubert’s Parrot has a line that says if Emma Bovary had violet eyes she would belong “in a Raymond Chandler novel.” “Funny is good,” said Barnes, laughing a little. “I like funny. But I was always called wry, or witty, or sometimes ironic. And clever.” Clever is spat out with slow, twinkling contempt. “Clever is not very nice. Not if you’re in England. And then I went on Desert Island Discs and the introduction went, ‘Julian Barnes was a clever schoolboy…’ There’s no getting away from it. So I kept saying to my publicist, when are they going to call me wise. I want to be called wise. And I’m only clever.”

“Wise” is word that could be applied to The Sense of an Ending, but devious or cunning is perhaps more apt. At first, the 163-page novella seems like an easy read with an inbuilt mystery that keeps you turning the pages. But once you finish it, it continues to eat away at you, forcing you to re-read it. And then, to uneasily re-examine your own past. What difficult parts have been slyly edited out? What careless deed has led to what terrible consequence? Has any of us, no matter how protected, escaped damage?

It’s hard to discuss the novel completely without revealing the secret on which it turns. But here’s a no-spoiler summary: The narrator is typically Barnesian. A retired Englishman whose life can be summed up in one word: average. Tony Webster says, “Average, that’s what I’ve been, ever since I left school. Average at the university and work; average in friendship, loyalty, love; average, no doubt at sex.” Tony loves control and hates risk. And then, one day, he gets a letter from a lawyer telling him that the diary of an old school friend who had slit his wrists forty years ago has been left to him. This friend, Adrian, a brilliant Cambridge student, was someone Tony had hero-worshipped – until Adrian decided to take up with Veronica Ford, by then Tony’s ex-girlfriend. A furious Tony had written to Adrian advising him to be careful because “Veronica had suffered some kind of damage a long way back” – even though this was pure conjecture on his part. The allegedly damaged Veronica, with her “quick but withholding smile” and rigid views on culture, is the most interesting character in the novel. She bristles with integrity and rage, mostly directed at Tony, whom she repeatedly says “just doesn’t get it.” But what is it that he “just doesn’t get?” And why has Adrian’s diary been left to him? Suddenly, Average Tony is obsessed with these questions and begins to dig up his past. The only tool he has – his memory – is a defective one, but it will have to do. In the last brutal pages, he finally gets it.

“The argument in both the beginning and end of the book,” said Barnes, “is about where responsibility lies. And to what extent something like a suicide is entirely the responsibility of the person who has done it, or is there a whole chain of responsibility. And there usually is.”

Barnes dramatizes this chain of responsibility against a backdrop of class difference. One of the best chapters has Tony describing a miserable weekend spent at Veronica’s family home in Kent. “I was so ill at ease that I spent the entire weekend constipated: that is my principal factual memory.” He accuses Veronica of being as detached as her red brick house. Barnes has a good ear for the snobbery of country homes – the posh putdown in heartily addressing the guest as “young feller-me-lad,” the careless wink thrown across the dinner table, the morning walk from which the guest is excluded. He also makes Tony constantly question his own paranoia and complexes. When Tony goes home, he gets a coarse satisfaction from having a “bloody good long shit” – and telling us about it.

Surprisingly, however, Barnes claimed “not to consciously write about class.” “I think I write about Englishness,” he said. “On the whole, I write about a certain sort of middleclass English person who has those habits of indirection and irony and under-expressiveness of emotion. A friend of mine once said to me, why are so many of the characters in your novels so sort of wimpy and passive? And I said, I can’t really explain it except that I get more fictional traction with an inexpressive, rather passive male. It sort of brings the action onto him. And I suppose it’s also that I’m less interested in the typical hero who goes out and does things. My heroes don’t do things. Sometimes things are done to them. Also, a passive male character brings on female rage…Which of course means you can then ask the question, what about damage to him? Is there some sort of damage to Tony that makes him not want to engage with the world? Not want to risk damage with the world.”

Damage-phobic Tony Webster, I said, reminded me of “super-ordinary Swede,” the tragic protagonist in Philip Roth’s American Pastoral. Swede Levov desperately wants to live the perfect, tidy American life but learns in a horrific way that he can’t protect himself or his family from damage – or from inflicting it. In the end, Levov’s perfect life turns out to be “reprehensible.” “That’s an interesting connection but I haven’t read American Pastoral,” said Barnes. “The Roth I like is the early to middle Roth. What is supposedly the great late period of Roth I find less interesting. Sabbath’s Theatre I couldn’t finish. But I like the early and middle ones. The Counterlife is a wonderful novel. I think that’s his best novel.”

However, he continued, damage reminded him of the book he was currently reading – Henry James’s Portrait of a Lady. “I’m a third of the way in,” he said. “Isabel Archer has been proposed to by an English lord and the rich American businessman, the cotton chap, and the arguments that are put to her are that it’s really much safer if you get married, and she says, no, I want to rub up against life, something like that. I don’t know if ‘rub up’ is James (‘affront my destiny,’ is what Isabel Archer wants to do), but that’s what she means. And they say to her, you must be careful you don’t get damaged. And I was struck, since we were talking about my book, about the Jamesian analogy. And don’t tell me what happens because I’ve never read it before. She’s just got to Florence and she’s just met the man whom Madame Merle has picked out for her, so I expect something bad is going to happen, but I’m not sure what.”

The conversation veered off into Henry James. By some coincidence I had only just read The Portrait myself and so it was fresh in my head. I asked if he agreed with the literary critic James Wood about Henry James’s superb use of narrative framing in the novel’s opening scene in which three bored men are taking tea on the lawns of a country house by the Thames, minutes before Isabel makes her entrance – and changes everything.  “It’s good,” said Barnes, meditatively. “It’s a good opening scene.” But the mention of Wood is a distraction. The hugely influential Wood, who writes for The New Yorker, has not exactly savaged Barnes with praise. He has called his stories “wan” and “cozily fenced” and “addicted to fact,” making him sound like a writerly Tony Webster.  Barnes, on his part, is known for his acidic views on the quality of criticism in general.

“I know of James Wood,” he said, emphasizing the of. “He’s been on my case for a very long time. I’m almost weary of displeasing James Wood…But I don’t really keep up with my reviews anymore. I stopped dead about the time of England, England because I always found that the good ones, when you re-read them, weren’t as good as you thought they were first time round, and the bad ones were just as bad as you thought they were. So I thought, why am I reading these reviews except for looking for praise about my books, and I felt that was sort of ignominious, you know, ignoble. And I thought, the book’s written and the review’s written, why bother to get into an emotional state about it. But then there was a wonderful review of England, England in The Sunday Times by John Carey – and I thought to myself, he completely understands the book. So you do want those nice adjectives but you also want the book to be accurately described in terms of its texture, its feeling, its weight, its tone. So much reviewing is just about inadequate description and that’s depressing. So I stopped completely in 1998…I read the French reviews because they are completely different from any other reviews.”

“And the French love you,” I interjected.

“I know. They do love me. But it’s nice to read reviews of your book in a different language. And the French are very imaginative. They often pretend to interview you when they haven’t. And no, I don’t mind at all.” (Later that evening, during his session with Mario Vargas Llosa on Flaubert and modernism, Barnes would reply sharply to a provocative comment about France being ”a nation without ideas.“ “I think that’s a gross libel on my favorite country,” he said. “The idea that the French don’t create ideas is incredibly stupid, an absurdity. I come from the country that doesn’t issue ideas. England is known as the country without music, as it should be.”)

He returned once more to Henry James. “My favorite moment in the whole opening scene is that the father has a very large cup. Do you remember? He’s having his tea out of a very large cup. And then it’s mentioned again once or twice, and then you think it’s absolutely brilliant of James not to explain it. He just doesn’t. And you think, is it because he warms his hands with it? Is it because it’s easier for an old man to pick up a big cup rather than a little cup? Is it just an eccentricity? Is it a sign that he is a man who has held great power and who therefore has a large cup? Does he like a lot of tea? Is it an example of the fact that he’s not English? It’s absolutely brilliant that we don’t know why that cup is so big.”

As he walked me to the lift he said, “Thank you for not asking if The Sense of an Ending is autobiographical. I’m so tired of that question.”

“It couldn’t have been,” I replied politely. “Tony Webster is bald.”

“That settles it then,” he said, and the lift arrived.

I’d enjoyed the meeting. And if I had to sum it up in one image, it would be that of the languid Barnes sitting forward in his chair with a sudden zest to obsess about the size of a teacup. You can’t get more English, English if you tried.

Image credit: FNPI – Joaquin Sarmiento

The Prizewinners 2011/12

With the awarding of the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, the 2011/2012 literary award season is now over, which gives us the opportunity to update our list of prizewinners.

Literary prizes are, of course, deeply arbitrary in many ways; such is the nature of keeping score in a creative field. Nonetheless, our prizewinners post is compiled in the same spirit that one might tally up Cy Young Awards and MVPs to determine if a baseball player should be considered for the Hall of Fame. These awards nudge an author towards the “canon” and help secure them places on literature class reading lists for decades to come.

There are three books climbing the ranks this year. Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad moved up thanks to landing on the IMPAC shortlist and is now in some rarefied company among the most honored books of the last 20 years, while The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes and Binocular Vision by Edith Pearlman both won notice from more than one literary prize last year.

Here is our methodology:

I wanted to include both American books and British books, as well as the English-language books from other countries that are eligible to win some of these awards. I started with the National Book Award and the Pulitzer from the American side and the Booker and Costa from the British side. Because I wanted the British books to “compete” with the American books, I also looked at a couple of awards that recognize books from both sides of the ocean, the National Book Critics Circle Awards and the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. The IMPAC is probably the weakest of all these, but since it is both more international and more populist than the other awards, I thought it added something. The glaring omission is the PEN/Faulkner, but it would have skewed everything too much in favor of the American books, so I left it out.

I looked at these six awards from 1995 to the present, awarding three points for winning an award and two points for an appearance on a shortlist or as a finalist. Here’s the key that goes with the list: B=Booker Prize, C=National Book Critics Circle Award, I=International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, N=National Book Award, P=Pulitzer Prize, W=Costa Book Award [formerly the Whitbread] bold=winner, red=New to the list or moved up* the list since last year’s “Prizewinners” post

*Note that the IMPAC considers books a year after the other awards do, and so this year’s IMPAC shortlist nods were added to point totals from last year.

11, 2003, The Known World by Edward P. Jones – C, I, N, P
9, 2001, The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen – C, I, N, P
8, 2010, A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan – C, I, P
8, 2009, Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel – B, C, W
8, 2007, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz – C, I, P
8, 1997, Underworld by Don DeLillo – C, I, N, P
7, 2005, The March by E.L. Doctorow – C, N, P
7, 2004, Line of Beauty by Alan Hollinghurst – B, C, W
7, 2002, Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides – I, N, P
7, 2001, Atonement by Ian McEwan – B, C, W
7, 1998, The Hours by Michael Cunningham – C, I, P
7, 1997, Last Orders by Graham Swift – B, I, W
7, 1997, Quarantine by Jim Crace – B, I, W
6, 2009, Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann – N, I
6, 2009, Home by Marilynn Robinson – C, N, I
6, 2005, The Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai – B, C
6, 2004, Gilead by Marilynn Robinson – C, P
5, 2011, Binocular Vision by Edith Pearlman – C, N
5, 2011, The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes – B, W
5, 2009, Brooklyn by Colm Tóibín – W, I
5, 2008, The Secret Scripture by Sebastian Barry – B, W
5, 2008, Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout – C, P
5, 2007, Tree of Smoke by Denis Johnson – N, P
5, 2006, The Road by Cormac McCarthy – C, P
5, 2006, The Echo Maker by Richard Powers – N, P
5, 2005, Europe Central by William T. Vollmann – C, N
5, 2005, The Accidental by Ali Smith – B, W
5, 2004, The Master by Colm Tóibín – B, I
5, 2003, The Great Fire by Shirley Hazzard – I, N
5, 2001, True History of the Kelly Gang by Peter Carey – B, I
5, 2000, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon – C, P
5, 2000, The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood – B, I
5, 1999, Waiting by Ha Jin – N, P
5, 1999, Disgrace by J.M. Coetzee – B, C
5, 1999, Being Dead by Jim Crace – C, W
5, 1998, Charming Billy by Alice McDermott – I, N
5, 1997, American Pastoral by Philip Roth – C, P
5, 1996, Every Man for Himself by Beryl Bainbridge – B, W
5, 1996, Martin Dressler: The Tale of an American Dreamer by Steven Millhauser – N, P
5, 1995, The Moor’s Last Sigh by Salman Rushdie – B, W
5, 1995, The Ghost Road by Pat Barker – B, W
5, 1995, Independence Day by Richard Ford – C, P
5, 1995, Sabbath’s Theater by Philip Roth – N, P

A Year in Reading: Garth Risk Hallberg

This was the year my son became a toddler — which is to say, the year I surrendered the keys to my attention span to a traveling companion by turns delightful, dilatory, and insane. Among the casualties of this shift was an essay I had planned to write, called “How Having a One-year-old Will Change Your Reading and Writing Habits” … along with several hundred other essays, reviews, articles, and epic poems that got interrupted partway through. But the kid has just gone down for a nap, which should buy me an hour or two, provided all goes well. And I do have my notes. (My notes! How optimistic that phrase now sounds!) What follows, then, is a kind of museum of my failures, an atlas of incompletion, a tour of the ruins of a future that never came. I call it “Reviews I Did Not Write This Year.”

1. Game-Changer
The single best thing I read in 2011 was Steps to an Ecology of Mind, a career-spanning nonfiction collection from the late anthropological polymath and proto-hippie genius Gregory Bateson. This may sound forbidding — and it is, in a way. Bateson is an artist of abstraction on par with Derrida or Kant. (What the hell is an “Ecology of Mind”, e.g.? Something like a way of thinking about thinking. Or thinking about thinking about thinking…) But Bateson’s method is inductive; each essay builds lucidly from some specific subject — alcoholism, Balinese art, the conversation of porpoises — toward a larger concern with form, communication, complexity, and how they inform systems of all kinds. After 400 pages of this, “Systems Theory,” which is another, uglier name for “Ecology of Mind,” comes to look like the great Road Not Taken of Western Thought. Or maybe a road gone partway down, backed out of, blocked off, and erased from the map, in favor of the road that got us to where we are today. In short, this book changed my brain. I don’t think it’s too strong to say that it changed my life.

2. Novels
Of the novels I read this year, my favorite was probably Philip Roth’s Sabbath’s Theater, but I’ve written about that elsewhere, so I guess there’s no room for it here. Equally captivating were a pair of books from that nebulous period just before Joyce and Eliot and Woolf arrived to put their stamp on literary history. The first was Lucky Per, the magnum opus of the Danish Nobelist Henrik Pontoppidan. First published in 1904, it’s either a late masterpiece of 19th century Realism, or an early masterpiece of 20th century Modernism … or maybe the missing term between them. Pontoppidan gives us both a Balzacian examination of a society on the cusp of cosmopolitanism and a Kierkegaardian x-ray of the vacant place where we once imagined the individual soul. Filling that vacancy is the hero-journey of the eponymous Per, and it culminates in one of the great, strange endings of world literature. But don’t take my word for it. Take Fredric Jameson’s. (Inexplicably, by the way, Lucky Per remained untranslated into English until a dear friend of mine took this mitzvah upon herself. In a just world there would be a nice Oxford World Classics edition of this available for $10, but as it stands, it’s a pricey import.)

The Forsyte Saga, which I read this summer, covers some of the same historical territory, but in England, rather than Denmark. You won’t catch me saying this often, but I think Virginia Woolf and V.S. Pritchett missed the boat on this one. Galsworthy’s style — his “port-wine irony,” as Pritchett puts it — looks pretty tasty a hundred years later, when the cultural palate tends to run either to near-beer or Jägermeister. And though he lacks the psychological penetration of a Pontoppidan (or a Woolf, for that matter) Galsworthy’s astuteness as an observer of the bourgeois mores that formed him is unimpeachable. You can almost read The Forsyte Saga as a spy novel, the work of a double-agent that both informs on and sympathizes with his class.

3. Addendum
I’d be remiss, too, if I didn’t mention David Markson’s Wittgenstein’s Mistress, which is just as amazing as everyone says it is. This had lingered on my list for years. If it’s done the same on yours, promote it to the top, post-haste.

4. Best New Fiction
As far as newish fiction, my favorites were David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King, Helen DeWitt’s Lightning Rods, Martin Amis’ The Pregnant Widow, and Haruki Murakami’s IQ84. The first two I wrote about here and here, so: disqualified on a technicality. But that’s a good thing, because it gives me more space to talk about The Pregnant Widow. This one struck me as a hetero version of Alan Hollinghurst’s The Line of Beauty, only set in the go-go ’60s rather than the go-go ’80s. (If that description had appeared on the jacket, it would have been enough to get me to buy the book, as there are few things I love more than Hollinghurst, the ’60s, and books about sex.) Amis being Amis, the writing is fantastic. More importantly, though, this book shows off the heart everyone says he doesn’t have. It’s a wistful little f–ker, at that. In fact, The Pregnant Widow would be Amis’ best book … were it not marred by an abominable coda. (Trust me on this: just stop on page 308. Bind the rest of the pages shut with glue, if you have to. Rip them out. Burn them. They never happened.)

IQ84 is, similarly and just as surprisingly, also full of heart (though Murakami’s temperament here runs more toward Tin Pan Alley than Let it Bleed). And, now that I think of it, IQ84 could likewise have used a nice strong edit at the end. But who’s going to complain about a thousand pages of assassins, “simple meals,” crazy religious cults, and “little people”? There are a million billion holes I could poke in this book, but for me, IQ84 bypassed questions of good taste entirely, en route to being often within shouting distance of the great. Just in terms of the massive tractor-beam effect it exerted on my attention, it was the most pleasurable reading experience I had all year. Away from it, I couldn’t wait to get back.

5. Brief Books With European Pedigrees
A wonderful new discovery for me was Lore Segal, whose Lucinella couldn’t be more unlike IQ84. It’s short, for one thing — I read it back during the time I thought I would read only short books. It’s wickedly funny, for another (writers’ colonies may be easy game, but it takes chutzpah to make sport of the gods). Also: it’s just exquisitely written. Here, the pleasure is less in the narrative burlesque than in every beautifully turned sentence. A New Year’s resolution: I will read more Lore Segal in 2012.

Another short, funny, weird novel I loved this year was Ludvíc Vakulíc’s The Guinea Pigs, now back in print in English. Vakulíc is like Bohumil Hrabal without the soft-shoe, or Kafka without the metaphysics. Here he writes about (in no particular order), bureaucracy, family, totalitarianism, money, and guinea pigs (natch). These emerge as aspects of the same phenomenon — an idea that struck me as weirdly apposite in America, circa 2011. At any rate, Vakulíc’s comedy is relentless, disconcerting, clear-eyed, and strange.

The last in my troika of great short books was Imre Kertesz’s Fatelessness. This is simply the best novel about the Holocaust I have ever read: the most meticulous, the most comprehensive, the most beautiful in its scruples, the most scrupulous in its beauty. To say that it, too, is disconcerting doesn’t mean what you’d think it means. Basically, you just have to read it.

6. Omissions
Somehow I’ve gotten through the “shorter books” section without mentioning Skylark, Never Let Me Go, or The Elementary Particles, as I somehow managed to get through the last decade without reading them. I hereby rectify the former error, as I rectified the latter in 2011. You should read these, too.

7. Nonfiction
Earlier this year, the 50th anniversary of the Freedom Rides inspired me to pick up John Lewis’ memoir Walking With the Wind. This seems to me the very model of the as-told-to book, in that you really feel the cadences of Lewis’ voice and the force of his insights. That this book is morally stirring is obvious. A couple things that often get lost in the narrative about the Civil Rights Movement, however, are what brilliant tacticians its leaders were and how widely their visions varied. You feel both here, powerfully. Occupiers, and for that matter Tea Partiers, could learn a lot at the feet of John Lewis.

8. Pulphead
Finally: everyone is required to read John Jeremiah Sullivan’s Pulphead. I know a lot of other people are saying this, but it’s true. The debt to Wallace’s A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again will be obvious even if you haven’t read Sullivan’s beautiful essay on Wallace, but the subtle subterranean orchestrations of these pieces, the way they press on and palpate the things they’re really about without ever naming them, remind me more of the great Joseph Mitchell. Most of them are practically perfect on their own, and collectively they comprise something greater. If you ever feel like the breach between journalism and anything of lasting consequence is getting wider and wider, let this book be your balm.

I should also say, it being the holidays and all, that Pulphead is a perfect stocking-stuffer, perfect to read on airplanes (also on subways and on park benches in cold weather), perfect for dads, perfect for moms, perfect for musicians, perfect for college kids, perfect for people with small children and a concomitant inability to concentrate. In short, a perfect gift. Oh, crap. I didn’t get to talk about The Gift! But the child is stirring in the next room, the laundry is almost done, I have apparently forgotten to eat lunch. Given that my pile of half-written essays now rivals the size of my pile of half-read books, I can’t say when you’ll next hear from me. Next December, probably, when it’s time for another Year in Reading piece. I promise that one will be shorter and more disciplined. Comparatively, haiku. But I hope this mess above will, if nothing else, give you some books to check out in the meantime.

More from A Year in Reading 2011

Don’t miss: A Year in Reading 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005

The good stuff: The Millions’ Notable articles

The motherlode: The Millions’ Books and Reviews

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Staff Picks: Sabbath’s Theater by Philip Roth

How to put this delicately? Philip Roth’s fifteenth novel, Sabbath’s Theater, is [email protected]#$ing filthy. Between its covers are dispensed volumes of bodily fluids that put your average Roger Corman flick to shame, and in its frankness about the attendant pneumatics – the ins and outs, the reservoirs and receptacles – the book makes Nicholson Baker’s “manstarch” look like so much marzipan, and The Rosy Crucifixion look like Make Way for Ducklings. Even Roth’s own earlier work starts to seem prim by comparison. Take, for example, the treatment of that Rothian hobbyhorse, onanism. In 1969, Alexander Portnoy’s violation of a piece of raw liver may well have been shocking. But in Sabbath’s Theater, published 26 years later, we watch the titular Mickey Sabbath visit a moonlit cemetery to jerk off onto his mistress’ grave. Not impressed? Consider that Sabbath’s efforts to commune with the late Drenka Balich are interrupted by a fellow mourner who has come to do the same (in all senses of the phrase). And that Sabbath sticks around to watch, and to snatch the bouquet on which his rival has climaxed.
Imagine then if someone had happened upon him that night, in the woods a quarter mile down from the cemetery, licking from his fingers Lewis’s sperm and, beneath the full moon, chanting aloud, “I am Drenka! I am Drenka!”
This is on page 78. The novel is 451 pages long.

Sabbath’s assignations may often approach the “top this” rhythm of vaudeville, but the sex in Sabbath’s Theater is also, as the mortuary setting here suggests, deadly serious. As in real life, lust is tangled up in a larger complex of forces encompassing morality, mortality, politics, history, and metaphysics…not to mention personal pathology. Mickey Sabbath is, at 64, a disgraced puppeteer and the last surviving member of his nuclear family. And in the wake of Drenka’s death, “Something horrible is happening.” He is rapidly approaching the end of his second marriage, and perhaps of his life more broadly. In the days that follow that overture in the graveyard, he will attend one friend’s funeral, proposition another friend’s wife, fight with his own wife, impersonate a homeless man, and contemplate suicide, all while maintaining a vigorous schedule of self-abuse. His trajectory, roughly, is King Lear’s – a comparison Sabbath’s Theater invites explicitly. But Sabbath, a triple-threat manipulator (i.e., by trade, inclination, and compulsion), can’t quite decide if he wants to play the potentate or the court jester.

His oscillations make the book excruciatingly funny, as real transgression often is. But they also license Sabbath – as madness licenses Lear and convention licenses his Fool – to voice painful truths, of the “As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods” variety. Roth is monomaniacally committed to the perspective of his protagonist, and his free indirect narration (gravitating toward stream-of-consciousness) takes as its ground-note the proposition that, in the face of death, life is meaningless. But as Sabbath tests it, again and again, he somewhat bafflingly proves the opposite. In the love the novel lavishes on even the most sordid details, that is, and in the beautiful American idiom of its ire, Sabbath’s Theater amounts to a kind of perverse hymn.

This is not to say it’s pitched in a key all readers will respond to. Roth “goes on and on and on about the same subject in almost every single book,” publisher Carmen Callil complained earlier this year, vis-a-vis her decision to resign in protest from the panel that had awarded him the Man Booker International Prize. “It’s as though he’s sitting on your face and you can’t breathe.” She was exactly right, of course; she just couldn’t hear that she was describing Roth’s ambitions, rather than his shortcomings. (In a just world, all future editions of Roth’s novels would carry these sentences as a blurb.)

In recent years, Sabbath’s Theater has tended to get lost in the shadow cast by its more respectable successors. The late-innings Roth revival people love to talk about gets dated to 1997, when he brought forth the first volume of what the folks in marketing tell us we now have to refer to as The American Trilogy. Which, by the way: yuck. Yet if we ignore Roth’s self-conscious, not to say obsessive-compulsive, curation of his own oeuvre (“Kepesh Books” ; “Roth Books” ; “Nemeses” (?)), the picture is more complicated. Zuckerman Bound (1979-83) is phenomenal; William H. Gass called The Counterlife, from 1986, “a triumph.” According to Leaving a Doll’s House, the tell-all memoir written by his ex-wife Claire Bloom (and published in the U.K., not coincidentally, by Carmen Callil), Roth himself felt his 1993’s Operation Shylock to be his masterpiece. (It’s at least partly his disappointment with Shylock’s reception fueling Mickey Sabbath’s eloquent outrage). If there was any lull in Roth’s powers, it was the six-year period between The Counterlife and Shylock – no longer than the period separating Goodbye, Columbus and Portnoy’s Complaint. And let us not forget that Sabbath’s Theater won the 1995 National Book Award.

It may be easier for, say, Michiko Kakutani to empathize with American Pastoral‘s Swede Levov than to embrace the rebarbative Mickey Sabbath. But it would have been just as useful to group these two together as to repackage another Zuckerman troika. Levov and Sabbath are obverse sides of the same coin – the same story, approached from different angles. Indeed, Sabbath’s foil Norman Cowan – “that impressive American thing…a nice rich guy with some depth” – looks very much like a sketch for the Swede. Comedy and tragedy, rectitude and blasphemy, responsibility and freedom, love and rage, meaning and meaninglessness and all the extremes that threaten to rip apart American life…”on and on and on about the same subject,” yes, but what a subject! And whereas its formulation in American Pastoral feels like a departure (which, on Carmen Callil’s terms, is a good thing) the savage and profane Sabbath’s Theater – this face-sitting, breath-taking brute – is Roth’s most Roth-y book. Which is to say, his best.

Bonus Link: Sex, Seriously: James Salter Trumps the Great Male Novelists

The Prizewinners 2010/2011

With the awarding of the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, the 2010/2011 literary award season is now over, which gives us the opportunity to update our list of prizewinners.

Literary prizes are, of course, deeply arbitrary in many ways; such is the nature of keeping score in a creative field. Nonetheless, our prizewinners post is compiled in the same spirit that one might tally up Cy Young Awards and MVPs to determine if a baseball player should be considered for the Hall of Fame. These awards nudge an author towards the “canon” and help secure them places on literature class reading lists for decades to come.

There are three books climbing the ranks this year. Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad unsurprisingly had a good showing with judges. Meanwhile, the IMPAC win puts Colum McCann’s Let the Great World Spin on our list, and the shortlist nod does the same for Colm Tóibín’s Brooklyn.

Here is our methodology:

I wanted to include both American books and British books, as well as the English-language books from other countries that are eligible to win some of these awards. I started with the National Book Award and the Pulitzer from the American side and the Booker and Costa from the British side. Because I wanted the British books to “compete” with the American books, I also looked at a couple of awards that recognize books from both sides of the ocean, the National Book Critics Circle Awards and the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. The IMPAC is probably the weakest of all these, but since it is both more international and more populist than the other awards, I thought it added something. The glaring omission is the PEN/Faulkner, but it would have skewed everything too much in favor of the American books, so I left it out.

I looked at these six awards from 1995 to the present, awarding three points for winning an award and two points for an appearance on a shortlist or as a finalist. Here’s the key that goes with the list: B=Booker Prize, C=National Book Critics Circle Award, I=International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, N=National Book Award, P=Pulitzer Prize, W=Costa Book Award [formerly the Whitbread] bold=winner, red=New to the list or moved up* the list since last year’s “Prizewinners” post

*Note that the IMPAC considers books a year after the other awards do, and so this year’s IMPAC shortlist nods were added to point totals from last year.

11, 2003, The Known World by Edward P. Jones – C, I, N, P
9, 2001, The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen – C, I, N, P
8, 2009, Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel – B, C, W
8, 2007, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz – C, P, I
8, 1997, Underworld by Don DeLillo – C, I, N, P
7, 2005, The March by E.L. Doctorow – C, N, P
7, 2004, Line of Beauty by Alan Hollinghurst – B, C, W
7, 2002, Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides – I, N, P
7, 2001, Atonement by Ian McEwan – B, C, W
7, 1998, The Hours by Michael Cunningham – C, I, P
7, 1997, Last Orders by Graham Swift – B, I, W
7, 1997, Quarantine by Jim Crace – B, I, W
6, 2010, A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan – C, P
6, 2009, Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann – N, I
6, 2009, Home by Marilynn Robinson – C, N, I
6, 2005, The Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai – B, C
6, 2004, Gilead by Marilynn Robinson – C, P
5, 2009, Brooklyn by Colm Tóibín – W, I
5, 2008, The Secret Scripture by Sebastian Barry – B, W
5, 2008, Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout – C, P
5, 2007, Tree of Smoke by Denis Johnson – N, P
5, 2006, The Road by Cormac McCarthy – C, P
5, 2006, The Echo Maker by Richard Powers – N, P
5, 2005, Europe Central by William T. Vollmann – C, N
5, 2005, The Accidental by Ali Smith – B, W
5, 2004, The Master by Colm Toibin – B, I
5, 2003, The Great Fire by Shirley Hazzard – I, N
5, 2001, True History of the Kelly Gang by Peter Carey – B, I
5, 2000, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon – C, P
5, 2000, The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood – B, I
5, 1999, Waiting by Ha Jin – N, P
5, 1999, Disgrace by J.M. Coetzee – B, C
5, 1999, Being Dead by Jim Crace – C, W
5, 1998, Charming Billy by Alice McDermott – I, N
5, 1997, American Pastoral by Philip Roth – C, P
5, 1996, Every Man for Himself by Beryl Bainbridge – B, W
5, 1996, Martin Dressler: The Tale of an American Dreamer by Steven Millhauser – N, P
5, 1995, The Moor’s Last Sigh by Salman Rushdie – B, W
5, 1995, The Ghost Road by Pat Barker – B, W
5, 1995, Independence Day by Richard Ford – C, P
5, 1995, Sabbath’s Theater by Philip Roth – N, P

The Prizewinners 2009/2010

With the awarding of the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, the 2009/2010 literary award season is now over, which gives us the opportunity to update our list of prizewinners.

Though literary prizes are arbitrary in many ways, our prizewinners post is compiled in the same spirit that one might tally up batting titles and MVPs to determine if a baseball player should be considered for the Hall of Fame. These awards nudge an author towards the “canon” and secure them places on literature class reading lists for decades to come.

There are two books climbing the ranks this year. With an impressive showing with the judges, Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall has become something of an instant classic, landing near the top of the list and in very good company. Meanwhile, the IMPAC shortlist nod puts Marilynn Robinson’s Home side-by-side with her much praised Gilead from 2004.

Here is our methodology:

I wanted to include both American books and British books, as well as the English-language books from other countries that are eligible to win some of these awards. I started with the National Book Award and the Pulitzer from the American side and the Booker and Costa from the British side. Because I wanted the British books to “compete” with the American books, I also looked at a couple of awards that recognize books from both sides of the ocean, the National Book Critics Circle Awards and the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. The IMPAC is probably the weakest of all these, but since it is both more international and more populist than the other awards, I thought it added something. The glaring omission is the PEN/Faulkner, but it would have skewed everything too much in favor of the American books, so I left it out.

I looked at these six awards from 1995 to the present, awarding three points for winning an award and two points for an appearance on a shortlist or as a finalist. Here’s the key that goes with the list: B=Booker Prize, C=National Book Critics Circle Award, I=International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, N=National Book Award, P=Pulitzer Prize, W=Costa Book Award [formerly the Whitbread] bold=winner, red=New to the list or moved up* the list since last year’s “Prizewinners” post

*Note that the IMPAC considers books a year after the other awards do, and so this year’s IMPAC shortlist nods were added to point totals from last year.

11, 2003, The Known World by Edward P. Jones – C, I, N, P
9, 2001, The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen – C, I, N, P
8, 2009, Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel – B, C, W
8, 2007, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz – C, P, I
8, 1997, Underworld by Don DeLillo – C, I, N, P
7, 2005, The March by E.L. Doctorow – C, N, P
7, 2004, Line of Beauty by Alan Hollinghurst – B, C, W
7, 2002, Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides – I, N, P
7, 2001, Atonement by Ian McEwan – B, C, W
7, 1998, The Hours by Michael Cunningham – C, I, P
7, 1997, Last Orders by Graham Swift – B, I, W
7, 1997, Quarantine by Jim Crace – B, I, W
6, 2009, Home by Marilynn Robinson – C, N, I
6, 2005, The Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai – B, C
6, 2004, Gilead by Marilynn Robinson – C, P
5, 2008, The Secret Scripture by Sebastian Barry – B, W
5, 2008, Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout – C, P
5, 2007, Tree of Smoke by Denis Johnson – N, P
5, 2006, The Road by Cormac McCarthy – C, P
5, 2006, The Echo Maker by Richard Powers – N, P
5, 2005, Europe Central by William T. Vollmann – C, N
5, 2005, The Accidental by Ali Smith – B, W
5, 2004, The Master by Colm Toibin – B, I
5, 2003, The Great Fire by Shirley Hazzard – I, N
5, 2001, True History of the Kelly Gang by Peter Carey – B, I
5, 2000, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon – C, P
5, 2000, The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood – B, I
5, 1999, Waiting by Ha Jin – N, P
5, 1999, Disgrace by J.M. Coetzee – B, C
5, 1999, Being Dead by Jim Crace – C, W
5, 1998, Charming Billy by Alice McDermott – I, N
5, 1997, American Pastoral by Philip Roth – C, P
5, 1996, Every Man for Himself by Beryl Bainbridge – B, W
5, 1996, Martin Dressler: The Tale of an American Dreamer by Steven Millhauser – N, P
5, 1995, The Moor’s Last Sigh by Salman Rushdie – B, W
5, 1995, The Ghost Road by Pat Barker – B, W
5, 1995, Independence Day by Richard Ford – C, P
5, 1995, Sabbath’s Theater by Philip Roth – N, P

The Prizewinners 2008/2009

With the awarding of the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award last week, the 2008/2009 literary award season is now over, which gives us the opportunity to update our list of prizewinners.

Though literary prizes are arbitrary in many ways, our prizewinners post is compiled in the same spirit that one might tally up batting titles and MVPs to determine if a baseball player should be considered for the Hall of Fame. These awards nudge an author towards the “canon” and secure them places on literature class reading lists for decades to come.

Most notably, after being named to the IMPAC shortlist, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz has joined the ranks of the most celebrated novels of the last 15 years, making it, along with the other books near the top of the list, something of a modern classic.

Here is our methodology:

I wanted to include both American books and British books, as well as the English-language books from other countries that are eligible to win some of these awards. I started with the National Book Award and the Pulitzer from the American side and the Booker and Costa from the British side. Because I wanted the British books to “compete” with the American books, I also looked at a couple of awards that recognize books from both sides of the ocean, the National Book Critics Circle Awards and the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. The IMPAC is probably the weakest of all these, but since it is both more international and more populist than the other awards, I thought it added something. The glaring omission is the PEN/Faulkner, but it would have skewed everything too much in favor of the American books, so I left it out.

I looked at these six awards from 1995 to the present, awarding three points for winning an award and two points for an appearance on a shortlist or as a finalist. Here’s the key that goes with the list: B=Booker Prize, C=National Book Critics Circle Award, I=International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, N=National Book Award, P=Pulitzer Prize, W=Costa Book Award [formerly the Whitbread] bold=winner, red=New to the list or moved up* the list since last year’s “Prizewinners” post

*Note that the IMPAC considers books a year after the other awards do, and so this year’s IMPAC shortlist nods added to point totals from last year in the case of three books.

11, 2003, The Known World by Edward P. Jones – C, I, N, P
9, 2001, The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen – C, I, N, P
8, 1997, Underworld by Don DeLillo – C, I, N, P
8, 2007, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz – C, P, I
7, 2005, The March by E.L. Doctorow – C, N, P
7, 2004, Line of Beauty by Alan Hollinghurst – B, C, W
7, 2002, Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides – I, N, P
7, 2001, Atonement by Ian McEwan – B, C, W
7, 1998, The Hours by Michael Cunningham – C, I, P
7, 1997, Last Orders by Graham Swift – B, I, W
7, 1997, Quarantine by Jim Crace – B, I, W
6, 2005, The Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai – B, C
6, 2004, Gilead by Marilynn Robinson – C, P
5, 2008, The Secret Scripture by Sebastian Barry – B, W
5, 2008, Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout – C, P
5, 2007, Tree of Smoke by Denis Johnson – N, P
5, 2006, The Road by Cormac McCarthy – C, P
5, 2006, The Echo Maker by Richard Powers – N, P
5, 2005, Europe Central by William T. Vollmann – C, N
5, 2005, The Accidental by Ali Smith – B, W
5, 2004, The Master by Colm Toibin – B, I
5, 2003, The Great Fire by Shirley Hazzard – I, N
5, 2001, True History of the Kelly Gang by Peter Carey – B, I
5, 2000, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon – C, P
5, 2000, The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood – B, I
5, 1999, Waiting by Ha Jin – N, P
5, 1999, Disgrace by J.M. Coetzee – B, C
5, 1999, Being Dead by Jim Crace – C, W
5, 1998, Charming Billy by Alice McDermott – I, N
5, 1997, American Pastoral by Philip Roth – C, P
5, 1996, Every Man for Himself by Beryl Bainbridge – B, W
5, 1996, Martin Dressler: The Tale of an American Dreamer by Steven Millhauser – N, P
5, 1995, The Moor’s Last Sigh by Salman Rushdie – B, W
5, 1995, The Ghost Road by Pat Barker – B, W
5, 1995, Independence Day by Richard Ford – C, P
5, 1995, Sabbath’s Theater by Philip Roth – N, P
4, 2008, Home by Marilynn Robinson – C, N
4, 2008, The Lazarus Project by Aleksandar Hemon – C, N
4, 2007, The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid – B, I
4, 2007, Animal’s People by Indra Sinha – B, I
4, 2005, Veronica by Mary Gaitskill – C, N
4, 2005, Arthur and George by Julian Barnes – B, I
4, 2005, A Long, Long Way by Sebastian Barry – B, I
4, 2005, Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro – B, C
4, 2005, Shalimar the Clown by Salman Rushdie – I, W
4, 2004, Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell – B, C
4, 2003, Brick Lane by Monica Ali – B, C
4, 2003, Bitter Fruit by Achmat Dangor – B, I
4, 2003, The Good Doctor by Damon Galgut – B, I
4, 2003, Evidence of Things Unseen by Marianne Wiggins – N, P
4, 2002, Family Matters by Rohinton Mistry – B, I
4, 2002, The Story of Lucy Gault by William Trevor – B, W
4, 2001, A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry – B, I
4, 2001, Bel Canto by Ann Patchett – I, N
4, 2001, John Henry Days by Colson Whitehead – N, P
4, 2001, Oxygen by Andrew Miller – B, W
4, 2000, The Keepers of Truth by Michael Collins – B, I
4, 2000, When We Were Orphans by Kazuo Ishiguro – B, W
4, 2000, Blonde by Joyce Carol Oates – N, P
4, 1999, Our Fathers by Andrew O’Hagan – B, I
4, 1999, Headlong by Michael Frayn – B, W
4, 1999, The Blackwater Lightship by Colm Toibin – B, I
4, 1997, Autobiography of My Mother by Jamaica Kincaid – C, I
4, 1997, Grace Notes by Bernard MacLaverty – B, W
4, 1997, Enduring Love by Ian McEwan – I, W
4, 1997, The Puttermesser Papers by Cynthia Ozick – I, N
4, 1996, Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood – B, I
4, 1995, In Every Face I Meet by Justin Cartwright – B, W

A Year in Reading: Kyle Minor

Kyle Minor is the author of In the Devil’s Territory, a collection of short stories. His recent work appears in Best American Mystery Stories 2008, Surreal South, and Random House’s Twentysomething Essays by Twentysomething Writers anthology.Five books that knocked the top of my head off in 2008:1. Knockemstiff, by Donald Ray Pollock – Eighteen wild and wooly stories from southern Ohio, in which a lifetime’s experience is distilled to nine or twelve pages of the most thrilling sentences I’ve ever read. If you liked Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son, Barry Hannah’s Airships, or Mark Richard’s Charity, Knockemstiff is the book for you.2. The Seamstress of Hollywood Boulevard, by Erin McGraw – The elegance here is Flaubertian, the prose flawless, and the story (loosely based upon the true story of McGraw’s disappeared-then-reappeared grandmother) is every bit as thrilling as anything Stephen King will serve up this year.3. Sabbath’s Theater, by Philip Roth – The best comic novel from the best comic novelist in America.4. American Pastoral, by Philip Roth – The best serious novel from the best serious novelist in America.5. Max Perkins: Editor of Genius, by Scott Berg – A biography of Maxwell Perkins, the legendary editor who held the hands of Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Thomas Wolfe, as they made their way together from obscurity toward literary permanence. I can’t imagine this book thrilled any reader in 1978, the year of its release, any more than it thrilled me thirty years later.More from A Year in Reading 2008

The Prizewinners Revisited

A while back, I put together a post called “The Prizewinners,” which asked what books had been decreed by the major book awards to be the “best” books over that period. These awards are arbitrary but just as a certain number of batting titles and MVPs might qualify a baseball player for consideration by the Hall of Fame, so too do awards nudge an author towards the “canon” and secure places on literature class reading lists in perpetuity.With two and a half years passed since I last performed this exercise, I thought it time to revisit it to see who is now climbing the list of prizewinners.Here is the methodology I laid out back in 2005:I wanted to include both American books and British books, as well as the English-language books from other countries that are eligible to win some of these awards. I started with the National Book Award and the Pulitzer from the American side and the Booker and Whitbread from the British side. Because I wanted the British books to “compete” with the American books, I also looked at a couple of awards that recognize books from both sides of the ocean, the National Book Critics Circle Awards and the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. The IMPAC is probably the weakest of all these, but since it is both more international and more populist than the other awards, I thought it added something. The glaring omission is the PEN/Faulkner, but it would have skewed everything too much in favor of the American books, so I left it out.I looked at these six awards from 1995 to the present awarding three points for winning an award and two points for an appearance on a shortlist or as a finalist. Here’s the key that goes with the list: B=Booker Prize, C=National Book Critics Circle Award, I=International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, N=National Book Award, P=Pulitzer Prize, W=Costa Book Award [formerly the Whitbread]bold=winner, **=New to the list since the original “Prizewinners” post11, 2003, The Known World by Edward P. Jones – C, I, N, P9, 2001, The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen – C, I, N, P8, 1997, Underworld by Don DeLillio – C, I, N, P7, 2005, The March by E.L. Doctorow – C, N, P **7, 2004, Line of Beauty by Alan Hollinghurst – B, C, W7, 2002, Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides – I, N, P7, 2001, Atonement by Ian McEwan – B, N, W7, 1998, The Hours by Michael Cunningham – C, I, P7, 1997, Last Orders by Graham Swift – B, I, W7, 1997, Quarantine by Jim Crace – B, I, W6, 2007, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz – C, P **6, 2005, The Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai – B, C **6, 2004, Gilead by Marilynn Robinson – B, P5, 2007, Tree of Smoke by Denis Johnson – N, P **5, 2006, The Road by Cormac McCarthy – C, P **5, 2006, The Echo Maker by Richard Powers – N, P **5, 2005, Europe Central by William T. Vollmann – C, N **5, 2005, The Accidental by Ali Smith – B, W **5, 2004, The Master by Colm Toibin – B, I **5, 2003, The Great Fire by Shirley Hazzard – I, N5, 2001, True History of the Kelly Gang by Peter Carey – B, I5, 2000, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon – C, P5, 2000, The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood – B, I5, 1999, Waiting by Ha Jin – N, P5, 1999, Disgrace by J.M. Coetzee – B, C5, 1999, Being Dead by Jim Crace – C, W5, 1998, Charming Billy by Alice McDermott – I, N5, 1997, American Pastoral by Philip Roth – C, P5, 1996, Every Man for Himself by Beryl Bainbridge – B, W5, 1996, Martin Dressler: The Tale of an American Dreamer by Steven Millhauser – N, P5, 1995, The Moor’s Last Sigh by Salman Rushdie – B, W5, 1995, The Ghost Road by Pat Barker – B, W5, 1995, Independence Day by Richard Ford – C, P5, 1995, Sabbath’s Theater by Philip Roth – N, P4, 2005, Veronica by Mary Gaitskill – C, N **4, 2005, Arthur and George by Julian Barnes – B, I **4, 2005, A Long, Long Way by Sebastian Barry – B, I **4, 2005, Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro – B, C **4, 2005, Shalimar the Clown by Salman Rushdie – I, W **4, 2004, Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell – B, C4, 2003, Brick Lane by Monica Ali – B, C4, 2003, Bitter Fruit by Achmat Dangor – B, I4, 2003, The Good Doctor by Damon Galgut – B, I4, 2003, Evidence of Things Unseen by Marianne Wiggins – N, P4, 2002, Family Matters by Rohinton Mistry – B, I4, 2002, The Story of Lucy Gault by William Trevor – B, W4, 2001, A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry – B, I4, 2001, Bel Canto by Ann Patchett – I, N4, 2001, John Henry Days by Colson Whitehead – N, P4, 2001, Oxygen by Andrew Miller – B, W4, 2000, The Keepers of Truth by Michael Collins – B, I4, 2000, When We Were Orphans by Kazuo Ishiguro – B, W4, 2000, Blonde by Joyce Carol Oates – N, P4, 1999, Our Fathers by Andrew O’Hagan – B, I4, 1999, Headlong by Michael Frayn – B, W4, 1999, The Blackwater Lightship by Colm Toibin – B, I4, 1997, Autobiography of My Mother by Jamaica Kincaid – C, I4, 1997, Grace Notes by Bernard MacLaverty – B, W4, 1997, Enduring Love by Ian McEwan – I, W4, 1997, The Puttermesser Papers by Cynthia Ozick – I, N4, 1996, Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood – B, I4, 1995, In Every Face I Meet by Justin Cartwright – B, W

What people are reading

There were a few readers among the sleepyheads on the train this morning. I have to say, I’m impressed with my fellow readers this morning for the caliber of the books they were reading. Here’s what I spotted:Black Boy by Richard Wright (I read this book in high school. Still one of my favorites.)Sabbath’s Theatre by Philip Roth (One of the books that made The Prizewinners list I put together last month.)The Magic Mountain by Thomas MannThe Way of the Flesh by Samuel Butler (V.S. Pritchett called it “one of the time-bombs of literature.”)Granta 91: Wish You Were Here (I love Granta. This issue includes Ismail Kadare, Margaret Atwood, Thomas Keneally and James Lasdun.)Cicero: The Life and Times of Rome’s Greatest Politician by Anthony Everitt (For all the classicists out there.)Three Junes by Julia GlassAnd a couple of bestsellers:Freakonomics by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. DubnerHarry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by J.K. Rowling

The Prizewinners

The list at the end of this post is arbitrary. Necessarily so, because awards, by their nature, are arbitrary. Nonetheless, after a couple of weeks full of awards news, including the inaugural appearance of the Quills, I was curious to see if all these awards are really pointing us towards good books.If we are dissatisfied with the Booker Prize or the National Book Award or the Pulitzer, the Quills, which casts the net very wide and relies on voting from the reading public, have been presented as a populist alternative. The results are less than satisfying. It is not news to anyone that the reading public likes Harry Potter and books by Sue Monk Kidd and Janet Evanovich. I hold nothing against those bestsellers, but naming them the best books of the year does little to satisfy one’s yearning to be introduced to the best, to have an encounter with a classic in our own time. We like those bestsellers because they entertain us, but while monetary success is the reward for those entertaining authors, awards have typically honored books with qualities that are more difficult to quantify. These award-winners are supposed to edify and challenge while still managing to entertain. But, as we saw with last year’s National Book Awards, readers are unsatisfied when recognition is reserved only for the obscure. We want to know our best authors even while they remain mysterious to us. So, pondering this, I wondered which books have been most recognized by book awards in recent years, and could those books also be fairly called the best books.It turned out to be a challenge. I wanted to include both American books and British books, as well as the English-language books from other countries that are eligible to win some of these awards. I started with the National Book Award and the Pulitzer from the American side and the Booker and Whitbread from the British side. Because I wanted the British books to “compete” with the American books, I also looked at a couple of awards that recognize books from both sides of the ocean, the National Book Critics Circle Awards and the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. The IMPAC is probably the weakest of all these, but since it is both more international and more populist than the other awards, I thought it added something. The glaring omission is the PEN/Faulkner, but it would have skewed everything too much in favor of the American books, so I left it out.I looked at these six awards from 1995 to the present awarding three points for winning an award and two points for an appearance on a shortlist or as a finalist. Here’s the key that goes with the list: B=Booker Prize, C=National Book Critics Circle Award, I=International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, N=National Book Award, P=Pulitzer Prize, W=Whitbread Book Award, bold=winner11, 2003, The Known World by Edward P. Jones – C, I, N, P9, 2001, The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen – C, I, N, P8, 1997, Underworld by Don DeLillio – C, I, N, P7, 2004, Line of Beauty by Alan Hollinghurst – B, C, W7, 2002, Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides – I, N, P7, 2001, Atonement by Ian McEwan – B, N, W7, 1998, The Hours by Michael Cunningham – C, I, P7, 1997, Last Orders by Graham Swift – B, I, W7, 1997, Quarantine by Jim Crace – B, I, W6, 2004, Gilead by Marilynn Robinson – N, P5, 2003, The Great Fire by Shirley Hazzard – I, N5, 2001, True History of the Kelly Gang by Peter Carey – B, I5, 2000, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon – C, P5, 2000, The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood – B, I5, 1999, Waiting by Ha Jin – N, P5, 1999, Disgrace by J.M. Coetzee – B, C5, 1999, Being Dead by Jim Crace – C, W5, 1998, Charming Billy by Alice McDermott – I, N5, 1997, American Pastoral by Philip Roth – C, P5, 1996, Every Man for Himself by Beryl Bainbridge – B, W5, 1996, Martin Dressler: The Tale of an American Dreamer by Steven Millhauser – N, P5, 1995, The Moor’s Last Sigh by Salman Rushdie – B, W5, 1995, The Ghost Road by Pat Barker – B, W5, 1995, Independence Day by Richard Ford – C, P5, 1995, Sabbath’s Theater by Philip Roth – N, P4, 2004, Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell – B, C4, 2003, Brick Lane by Monica Ali – B, C4, 2003, Bitter Fruit by Achmat Dangor – B, I4, 2003, The Good Doctor by Damon Galgut – B, I4, 2003, Evidence of Things Unseen by Marianne Wiggins – N, P4, 2002, Family Matters by Rohinton Mistry – B, I4, 2002, The Story of Lucy Gault by William Trevor – B, W4, 2001, A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry – B, I4, 2001, Bel Canto by Ann Patchett – I, N4, 2001, John Henry Days by Colson Whitehead – N, P4, 2001, Oxygen by Andrew Miller – B, W4, 2000, The Keepers of Truth by Michael Collins – B, I4, 2000, When We Were Orphans by Kazuo Ishiguro – B, W4, 2000, Blonde by Joyce Carol Oates – N, P4, 1999, Our Fathers by Andrew O’Hagan – B, I4, 1999, Headlong by Michael Frayn – B, W4, 1999, The Blackwater Lightship by Colm Toibin – B, I4, 1997, Autobiography of My Mother by Jamaica Kincaid – C, I4, 1997, Grace Notes by Bernard MacLaverty – B, W4, 1997, Enduring Love by Ian McEwan – I, W4, 1997, The Puttermesser Papers by Cynthia Ozick – I, N4, 1996, Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood – B, I4, 1995, In Every Face I Meet by Justin Cartwright – B, WI find the list to be fairly satisfying, especially at the top, though it does skew in favor of men. There are also a preponderance of “big name” literary authors on this list, but it begs the question: Does the fame come first or do the awards? I’d love to hear other opinions on this list, so please, share your comments.See Also: Award Annals compiles similar lists (though much more comprehensive than this one.)

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