“In the early morning on the lake sitting in the stern of the boat with his father rowing, he felt quite sure that he would never die.” Ever since I turned 40—that is to say, for a week now—this final sentence of Hemingway’s “Indian Camp” has been rattling around my head. When I first read it, back in college, it landed like a hard left hook, knocking me flat with recognition. (I can’t be alone in this; Cormac McCarthy nicked the phrasing for the end of Blood Meridian.) Right, I thought. Exactly. But now, revisiting the end of “Indian Camp,”‘ I see that my younger self was missing at least half the point: It’s supposed to be ironic! Of course he’s going to die! In fact, maybe that’s why the line has been on my mind, along with Dante’s “mezzo del camin di nostra vita” and Yeats’s “widening gyre” and Larkin’s “long slide.” For though I’ve managed to avoid until now the garment-rending and gnashing of teeth around birthdays (“Age ain’t nothing but a number,” right?) forty really does feel like a delineation. At 39, rocking the Aaliyah quote is still a youthful caprice. At 41, it’s a midlife crisis.
And the fact that I’m no longer immortal would seem to raise some questions about the pursuit I’ve more or less given my life to: reading. Specifically, if you can’t take it with you, what’s the point? Indeed, I now wonder whether the bouts of reader’s block I suffered in 2014 and 2017 had to do not with technological change or familial or political crisis, but with the comparatively humdrum catastrophe of getting older. Yet 2018 found me rejuvenated as a reader. Maybe there was some compensatory quality-control shift in my “to-read” pile (life’s too short for random Twitter) or maybe it was just dumb luck, but nearly every book I picked up this year seemed proof of its own necessity. So you’ll forgive me if I enthuse here at length.
First and foremost, about Halldór Laxness’s Independent People. This Icelandic classic had been on my reading list for almost a decade, but something—its bulk, its ostensible subject (sheep farming), its mythic opening—held me back. Then, this summer, I took a copy to Maine, and as soon as Bjartur of Summerhouses blustered onto the page, the stubbornest hero in all of world literature, I was hooked. As for those sheep: This is a novel about them only in the sense that Lonesome Dove is a novel about cows. And though I love Lonesome Dove, Independent People is much the better book. Laxness’s storytelling offers epic sweep and power, but also, in J.A. Thompson’s stunning translation, modernist depth and daring, along with humor and beauty and pain to rival Tolstoy. In short, Independent People is one of my favorite novels ever.
Also among the best things I read in 2018 were the shorter works that padded out my northern travels: Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping and the novels of Jenny Erpenbeck. I’m obviously late arriving to the former; there’s not much I can say that you won’t have heard elsewhere, or experienced yourself. (Still: the prose!) Of the latter, I can report that The End of Days is ingenious, as if David Mitchell had attempted Sebald’s The Emigrants. And that Go, Went, Gone, notwithstanding Jonathan Dee’s careful gift-horse inspection in Harper’s, is even better. But for my money, Erpenbeck’s finest novel is Visitation, which manages to pack much of the story of 20th-century Germany into the 190-page description of a country house. In any case, Erpenbeck’s writing, like Robinson’s, seems built to endure.
On the nonfiction front, I spent a week this fall immersed in Thomas de Zengotita’s Politics and Postmodern Theory, a heady, lucid, and ultimately persuasive philosophical recasting of nearly a half-century of academic kulturkampf. Much as Wittgenstein (who gets a chapter here) claimed to resolve certain problems of philosophy by showing them to arise from elementary confusions, de Zengotita seeks to dispel muddles over the legacy of post-structuralism and the Enlightenment thought it ostensibly dismantled. He does so by giving key 20th-century thinkers—Kristeva, Derrida, Deleuze, Judith Butler—a rereading that is rigorous, respectful, accessible, and, in important ways, against the grain. As an etiology of the current cultural situation, this book belongs on a shelf with Frederic Jameson’s Postmodernism and David Harvey’s The Condition of Postmodernity. And, notwithstanding its price tag, anyone who cares deeply about issues of identity and solidarity and being-in-the-world today should heed its lessons.
This was also a year when the new-fiction tables at the bookstore seemed reinvigorated. For my money, the best American novel of 2018 was Rachel Kushner’s The Mars Room, whose urgent blend of social conscience and poetic vision made debates about “reality hunger” and the value of fiction seem not just quaint but fallacious. So, too, with Mathias Énard’s Compass, now in paperback in a crystalline translation by Charlotte Mandell. It would be hard to find a novel more indebted to historical reality, but in its fearless imagination, Compass turns these materials into something properly fictive, rather than factitious—and wholly Énard’s own. And I’d be remiss not to mention Deborah Eisenberg’s story collection Your Duck Is My Duck. Eisenberg writes the American sentence better than anyone else alive, and for anyone who’s followed these stories as they’ve appeared, serially, her brilliance is a given. Read together, though, they’re a jolting reminder of her continued necessity: her resistance to everything that would dull our brains, hearts, and nerves.
And then you could have made a National Book Awards shortlist this year entirely out of debuts. One of the most celebrated was Jamel Brinkley’s A Lucky Man. What I loved about these stories, apart from the Fitzgeraldian grace of Brinkley’s voice, was their tendency to go several steps beyond where a more timid writer might have stopped—to hurl characters and images and incidents well downfield of what the story strictly required and then race to catch up. More important than being uniformly successful, A Lucky Man is uniformly interesting. As is Lisa Halliday’s Asymmetry. The “unexpected” coda, in my read, put a too-neat bow on things. I’d have enjoyed it even more as an unresolved diptych. But because the novel’s range and hunger are so vast, such asymmetries end up being vital complications of its interests and themes: artifice, power, subjectivity, and truth. They are signs of a writer who aims to do more than simply write what is within her power to know.
Any list of auspicious recent debuts should also include one from the other side of the pond: David Keenan’s This Is Memorial Device (from 2017, but still). The novel presents—tantalizingly, for me—as an oral history of the postpunk scene in the Scottish backwater of Airdrie in the early 1980s, yet Keenan’s psychedelic prose and eccentric emphases make it something even more. I was reminded frequently of Roberto Bolaño’s The Savage Detectives, and could not fathom why this book was overlooked in the U.S. Hopefully, the publication of a follow-up For the Good Times, will change that.
It was a good year for journalism, too. I’m thinking not of Michael Wolff or (God forbid) Bob Woodward, but of Sam Anderson, the critic at large for The New York Times Magazine, and his first book, Boom Town. If there’s one thing less immediately exciting to me than sheep farming, it’s Oklahoma City, which this book promises (threatens?) to explore. On the other hand, I would read Sam Anderson on just about anything. Here, starting with the Flaming Lips, the land-rush of 1889, and the unlikely rise of the NBA’s Oklahoma City Thunder, he stages a massive detonation of curiosity, sensibility, and wonder. (Favorite sentence: “Westbrook, meanwhile, started the season Westbrooking as hard as he could possibly Westbrook.”) And as with David Foster Wallace or John Jeremiah Sullivan, he leaves you feeling restored to curiosity and wonder yourself.
I’m also thinking of Pam Kelley’s Money Rock, which focuses on the drug trade in 1980s Charlotte. It reminded me, in miniature, of a great book I’d read a few months earlier, David Simon’s sprawling Homicide. Simon and Kelley are sure-handed when sketching the social systems within which we orbit, but what makes these books live is their feel for the human swerve—for Detective Terry McLarney of the Baltimore Homicide Squad or Lamont “Money Rock” Belton, locked up behind the crack game.
This was also the year I started reading J. Anthony Lukas, who, among the ranks of New or New-ish Journalists who emerged in the ’60s, seems to have fallen into comparative neglect. I checked out Nightmare, his book on Nixon, and was edified. Then I moved on to Common Ground, about the struggle to integrate Boston’s school system, and was blown away. With little authorial commentary or judgment, but with exhaustive reporting, Lukas embeds with three families—the Waymons, the McGoffs, and the Drivers—to give us a 360-degree view of a pivotal event in American history. The book has its longeurs, but I can think of few working journalists this side of Adrian Nicole Leblanc who’d be patient enough to bring off its parallactic vision.
In talking to friends about Common Ground, I kept hearing memories of its ubiquity on the coffeetables and library shelves of the 1980s, yet no one my age seemed to have read it. Like Homicide, it hangs in that long middle age where books slowly live or die—not news anymore, but not yet old enough to fall out of print, or to become a “classic.” Recommending these books feels like it might actually make a difference between the two. So here are a few more shout-outs: 1) John Lanchester, The Debt to Pleasure, from 1996. Anyone who relishes, as I do, the fundamental sanity of Lanchester’s essays will be surprised by the demented glee of his first novel. Its prophetic sendup of foodie affectation throws Proust into a blender with Humbert Humbert and Patrick Suskind’s Perfume—and is maybe the funniest English novel since The Information. 2) Javier Cercas, Soldiers of Salamis, from 2001. I ran down a copy in preparation for interviewing Cercas and ended up thinking this may be my favorite of his books: a story of survival during the Spanish Civil War and of an attempt to recover the truth half a century later. In it, the heroic and the mock-heroic achieve perfect balance. 3) Emma Richler, Be My Wolff, from last year. Impressed by the beauty of Richler’s writing and the uncommon intelligence of her characters, I sent in a blurb for this one just under the deadline for publication, but still 50 pages from the end. When I finally got around to finishing it early this year, I found I’d missed the best part. I love this novel’s passionate idiosyncrasies.
And finally…back to Scandinavia. In August, while luxuriating in Independent People, I was asked to review CoDEX 1962, a trilogy by the Icelandic writer Sjón. This in turn forced me to put aside the introduction I’d been working on for the Danish Nobel Prize-winner Henrik Pontoppidan’s magnum opus, Lucky Per…which meant a further delay in finishing Book 6 of the Norwegian Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle. With more than 3000 pages of Nordic writing before me, I felt certain warning signals flashing. As Knausgaard writes (of being 40), “Why had I chosen to organize my life this way?” The truth is that there was no organization involved, just a random clumping of the reading list, and I’m happy to report that things are now back to normal. But once I got past the anxiety, I actually enjoyed my two solid months of Nordic fiction. I wasn’t totally convinced by CoDEX 1962, but a couple of Sjón’s shorter novels killed me—especially Moonstone, a coming-of-age story set in Rekjavik in the cataclysmic early days of cinema. And though most of Pontoppidan’s corpus hasn’t been translated into English, the novellas The Royal Guest, The Polar Bear, and The Apothecary’s Daughters, make fascinating companions to Joyce, Conrad, and Chekhov…if you can find them. (Lucky Per will be republished by Everyman’s Library in April.) As for Knausgaard, the final volume of My Struggle is one of the more uneven of the six, and I’m still digesting the whole. But at this point almost a decade of my life is bound up with these books. All these books, really. And that strange adjacency of real, finite life and the limitless life of the imagination…well, maybe that’s been the point all along.
More from A Year in Reading 2018
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In early 2016, I had a chance to take my wife and kids to Barcelona for a few months. It felt like a great time to be out of the U.S. in general—primary season!—but especially to be there on the Mediterranean, where winter is what we here call “spring.” I’d been abroad only a handful of times before, never for more than a couple weeks, and now I surrendered giddily to food and architecture and people, a whole different tempo of life. Perhaps not coincidentally, I fell in love with pretty much every book I opened there. I read Open City. I read Spring Torrents. I read Mercè Rodoreda, Catalonia’s answer to Clarice Lispector (and a shamefully neglected writer here at home). I read Isherwood and Saramago. Especially, though, I fell under the spell of three contemporary masters of Spanish-language fiction: Javier Cercas, of Barcelona, Javier Marías, of Madrid, and Álvaro Enrigue, of Mexico and New York. Even later, back in the U.S., I would feel with these writers the connection you get when your reading life and your life-life come close enough to touch. Over the last couple years, I’ve managed to track each of them down for an interview. The second in this series will be with Enrigue; the third with Marías.
The first is with Cercas, author of the international bestseller The Soldiers of Salamis and the acclaimed “novel with nonfiction” The Anatomy of a Moment, as well as the novels The Speed of Light and Outlaws. His new novel with nonfiction, The Impostor, tells the true story of Enric Marco, who passed himself off for a quarter century as a Holocaust survivor and leader of the resistance to Franco’s dictatorship. In her New York Times review, Parul Seghal wrote of the book’s “hot, charged energy” with the thrill of one discovering Cercas’s work for the first time. It’s a thrill I remember well myself.
The Millions: I wanted to start with a curious discrepancy. This summer, I picked up a copy of The Speed of Light in a used bookshop, and I was struck by the self-portrait you’ve embedded at the beginning there. As in many of your books, there’s a Javier Cercas character, and here he’s a young man in his mid-20s, a kind of writer manqué, but with no sense of what he might want to write. But then in Roberto Bolaño’s nonfiction collection Between Parentheses, he has an essay about you [“Javier Cercas Comes Home”] where he says, in essence, that he’s known you since you were 17 and you were always hunting big game, always going to write a masterpiece, and now you’ve come home to Gerona to do so. So which, I guess I’m asking, was the real you: the schlemiel or the focused, ambitious artist.
Javier Cercas: This is very easy, in fact. I was always an outcast. I’m an immigrant, a child of immigrants, from Extremadura. A guy without roots.
TM: Even in language, right? Your parents would have spoken Castilian, and now they’ve landed in Gerona, this city in Catalonia, where everyone speaks Catalan. You’re like the character Gafitas, in Outlaws.
JC: Yes. And I wanted to be a writer from the very beginning, when I was 14, I think. But because I was an outcast, it was like wanting to be an astronaut … a very weird thing to be. In fact, Bolaño was probably my first friend who wrote a book in Spanish—and he was something like 47 when he wrote that piece, 10 years older than me. And he still wasn’t famous yet the way he is today.
I’ll tell you a funny story about Bolaño. We were always on the phone, like boyfriend and girlfriend. One day, around the time when he began to be known, he calls me and says, “Javier, there is this anthology of young writers called Yellow Pages that’s just come out, and you’re not in it. You must have made a big enemy somewhere.” I told him, “No, no, that’s not true. The problem in fact is that no one even knows who I am!”
TM: As in “I should be lucky to have such enemies!”
JC: Well, a lot of that is just the way Bolaño saw the world, and it comes through in the piece you mentioned. He had that wonderful sense of literature as a fight.
TM: The novelist and the critic fencing on the beach in The Savage Detectives …
JC: Exactly. Anyway, for me, at that time, I knew I was a writer, or wanted to be a writer, but I was a complete outsider. I was completely outside of any literary milieu.
TM: Which is not such a bad way to be. So basically you were writing fiction for yourself while scraping by with journalism as a day job, like the Javier in your books, until Soldiers of Salamis came along and changed your life?
JC: No, I was in the university. Because I needed to earn my living, you know? This was my idea: being in the university, writing my books, and no one reading them. No one except Bolaño, my mother, and some friends. Which is normal! I have readers now, but that’s not normal. I had gone to America for a couple of years to study, and then I had been writing. But at the moment in my life when Bolaño wrote what he wrote about me, I was in a strong depression. I had come back to Gerona, you know, from the States, then Barcelona. At that moment, his piece was very important to me. And it was all lies!
TM: Prophecies, not lies.
JC: But yes, in any case, Soldiers was the book that changed everything.
TM: How did you come to the story of Rafael Sánchez Mazas? I mean, was it all at once, or was it something you had been carrying around? Or a combination: something you had been carrying around for a while that was then catalyzed suddenly by some other thing—the way the Sánchez Mazas story in the first half of book is catalyzed by the story of you and Bolaño and the search for Miralles in the second.
JC: The last of these, I think. I had the Sánchez Mazas story originally from his son, Sánchez Ferlioso, as the Javier Cercas character in the book gets it. I should say that all the characters in that book are real. It’s a false chronicle, so of course everything has to be real. Except for one character, who you’ll never guess.
TM: I surrender.
JC: The fortune teller, the girlfriend of Javier Cercas, who is completely made up. And of course—and this is completely true—that’s the one character who sued me. A real fortune teller in the town where the book is set sued me for using her in my book! The Bolaño part of the story, though, is a little different from the Sánchez Mazas story. Bolaño had told me that part, the story of Miralles, a long time ago. And it occurred to me that I could use it to tell the first story. I went to him and asked him for permission, expecting him to turn me down—
TM: Because in your mind it’s literary gold—
JC: Exactly. And of course he said, “No, no, this is not much of a story,” and he allowed me to have it.
TM: I sometimes think this is how books come about—that you discover you are the only one who sees the fictional value in a thing, and you almost have to write it because if you don’t, no one else will. Anyway, since before Soldiers, from your first work Relatos Reales, all the way up to The Impostor, you’ve been drawn to this borderland between fiction and nonfiction. What attracted you to it?
JC: Well, I thought from the beginning, pure fiction is always a lie, you know? In some way, the fuel is always reality. I wrote about this recently in an essay called The Blind Spot: that the novel is a wonderful genre where you can invent anything you want—that’s how Cervantes gave it to us. But that the fuel is reality. As for how to mix the two, each book has its own rules; it all depends on the book. To write a book is to create a game. You have to find the rules, to formulate the question in the most complex possible way. As in The Impostor: “Why did this guy, Enric Marco, the false Holocaust survivor, lie about the worst crime in history?” I’m always trying to write what I don’t know. And the first thing the writer must do is figure out the unique rules of the game. If two books have the same rules, one of them is bad.
JC: In the case of The Impostor, one rule was that it would be redundant to write a fiction about another fiction. Instead, I thought, let’s organize the book as a battle between the lies and the truth. And if people ask me, like the man on the radio [NPR’s Ari Shapiro] just now, “Why ‘novel without fiction?'” I think, “why not?”
TM: The “why not” is the freedom. And the rules are the constraints.
JC: Yes. You choose your constraints. And then you become a slave to them. There’s a moment in the book, I’ve been interviewing Enric Marco, picking apart his lies, and then at this one moment, this last lie, Marco says, hands on head, “Please leave me something.” But I couldn’t, because I was a slave to the rules. This was a difficult moment.
And yet when I actually sat down to do the writing, I was incredibly happy writing this book—which is not always the case.
TM: I wanted to ask you about heroism. We’ve talked about the method, but at least from Soldiers on, heroism is the subject—even in The Impostor, where it’s the image of the hero, or some debased idea of heroism, that seems to hold Marco captive and prod him into his many lies. Kitsch heroism, like the story he tells about playing chess with the concentration camp guard and refusing to lose, even though he knows it may cost his life. Are you aware of this as a through-line, heroism?
JC: I don’t know where it comes from. Probably my reading as a boy, adventure books. Stevenson. Verne. The Odyssey and The Iliad. But it’s a specific kind of heroism I’m interested in. Once Le Monde asked me and some other writers a question: What single word is most important for you? It’s a strange question, but the moment I hung up the phone, I knew the answer: the word “No.” Sort of quoting Camus: “The Man Who Says No.” My novels are about these kinds of heroes, people who say no, or try to say no.
TM: What you call, in The Anatomy of a Moment (following Hans Magnus Enzensberger) the “hero of retreat.” Like Prime Minister Adolfo Suárez there, who appears in that one moment or period as a very complicated sort of hero, and was far from heroic in all kinds of other ways.
JC: There is only one pure hero in all the books: Miralles in Soldiers of Salamis. He has to kill an enemy—a bastard—and still he says no. As for me, I would be among the members of parliament in The Anatomy of a Moment, ducking for cover. And then Marco in The Impostor, of course, is the man who says yes. He would love to be a hero, but can’t.
TM: Why do you think that is?
JC: Virtue is something secret, I think. When it becomes public, it’s no longer heroism. Yet Marco had to constantly be saying “I’m a hero, I’m a hero, we’re all heroes.” And of course, Marco is everyone. We are all, in a sense, this guy; he’s a perfect mirror of our time. This book says something awful: We prefer lies to the truth. Lies are beautiful.
TM: Sexy, maybe. Pretty. But not beautiful. Beauty is like virtue. Or is virtue.
JC: My question all along was, Why don’t people call him on his lies? And the answer is that people prefer pretty lies to the truth. The truth about Nazi camps is complex, dirty, and not beautiful. Claudio Magris wrote about Marco something like “He lied, yes, but for a good cause.” But that’s bullshit. What he was spreading was adulterated, romantic, heroic kitsch. And we prefer that. That’s why Donald Trump is in your White House.
TM: And in Spain, what was the reaction to this book? I knew when I first heard about it that American readers would be interested in it. We have the kind of relationship you’re describing with dirty parts of our own history, with slavery and exploitation, but we have this less complicated relationship, at least publicly, with the fight against Naziism. But in Spain, part of the “historical memory” movement you contributed to with Soldiers and write about in Anatomy and The Impostor has to involve negotiating the complicity of ordinary people with Francoism, with fascism. Marco, you suggest, offered a heroic version of “historical memory” that helped ordinary people feel virtuous. So what was the reaction domestically to your writing about Marco, and in a sense calling out the lies?
JC: The answer is quite easy. I have my readers in Spanish. So with them, I have no problem. But many other people were resistant to what I am saying in the book. Don’t get me wrong, “historical memory” is essential. What’s Faulkner’s line? The past is not dead. The past, of which we are living witnesses, is part of the present, without which the present is mutilated. The Spanish Civil War is the present. Francoism is the present.
But the truth is, necessarily, that most people accepted Francoism. And that most people adulterate or erase the worst part of their history. I recently read this suggestion by Tzvetan Todorov, that de Gaulle convinced the French people they were all Resistance: “Les français n’ont pas besoin de la verité,” he said. People tend to mask … and I understand that. But now, it is not possible. The movement for “historical memory” in Spain was insufficient, and became fiction: “We were all anti-Franco. We were all heroes.” It’s completely false—bullshit!
The reality is more complex and ugly: Fascism was supported by many people. And I don’t blame them. To be a hero is very difficult. You go to jail and die, is the usual outcome. Yet it shows a lack of respect to lie about it. If you lie about the past, you lie about the present. Another Faulkner line, from a letter, I think: “There is no such thing as was.”
A lot of Catalans and the Left, in particular, were mad at me for The Impostor. But it’s a national problem. We’re drowning in lies.
TM: Especially you, it seems. There’s a moment in the book, early on, that’s a curious one. You’re at a dinner, in Madrid I think, with Mario Vargas Llosa and some others, and the discussion turns to the just-unmasked Enric Marco, and someone suggests you have to write about him because he’s so much like a character in your books. You say something like, “Well we’re all impostors,” and someone says, “But especially you, Javier.” You don’t return to this line for many hundreds of pages in the book, but it seems to form some secret connection between you and Marco. Why are you, uniquely, an impostor?
JC: I’m going to tell you a secret, and it’s very interesting: There is one chapter in this battle between truth and lies that is invented. It’s a dialogue … I don’t know, a daydream or something. And the answer is there. Because there Marco can say what he really wants, can attack me. He says, OK, I lied. But you did, too. In fact, Marco wanted to be Miralles. But he tells me “You married fiction and fact, you became famous, a millionaire”—which is not true, of course—”But I did the same and I was a pariah. And remember,” he’s saying, “You are me. I am you.”
Of course, he’s lying.
TM: In the midst of a chapter you’ve invented.
JC: But that’s the idea. The book, really, is a fight between impostors.