My first book, Upright Beasts, came out this year. As I answered the standard interview questions about influences, I realized that many of my biggest influences are writers whom I actually haven’t read in many years. So I decided to dedicate much of my year in reading to revisiting two authors who are central in my own personal canon: Italo Calvino and Kōbō Abe.
My Calvino revisiting was actually prompted by an article I was assigned, a reader’s guide to the great Italian fabulist for the (now sadly defunct) Oyster Review. Calvino is an author I read extensively in high school and college. He was one of the first authors who taught me that fiction could be both artistic and just plain fun at the same time. There were a couple of his works I’d never gotten around to, and this year I read them. The best of these previously unread books were Marcovaldo and The Nonexistent Knight. The former is a collection of interlinked stories about a poor laborer in an industrial Italian city. It features everything I remember loving about Calvino. The book is at times truly hilarious and at other times philosophical. His style is honed, but doesn’t overwhelm the stories. And the book is conceptual — the chapters are organized by seasons — without being gimmicky. Most of all, it was just a joy to read.
The Nonexistent Knight is a short novel that is sometimes grouped with two other short novels, The Baron in the Trees (my personal favorite Calvino) and The Cloven Viscount, as a book called Our Ancestors. All three are historical fables that take a simple but absurd premise and run with it until it becomes something magical. The Nonexistent Knight, as its title implies, tells the tale of a knight who doesn’t really exist, but appears in reality as an empty suit of armor out of pure faith in the holy cause of Charlemagne. This premise could be a great four-page Donald Barthelme or Jorge Luis Borges short story, but Calvino’s wizardry somehow makes it work as a novel.
Kōbō Abe is an author who utterly floored me with his existential and absurdist novel The Woman in the Dunes. It immediately became one of my favorite novels, and I also devoured the bizarre science fiction nightmare novel Inter Ice Age 4. This year, I read three novels — each unique and fantastic — by the author commonly dubbed the Japanese Kafka: The Box Man, Secret Rendezvous, and The Ruined Map. Like Calvino, I felt he held up, with one caveat: the female characters in those first two books were too often overly sexualized and underdeveloped. That problem aside, Abe’s novels really do have the dark humor and nightmarish reality of the best of Franz Kafka’s work. I was also impressed by the genre range that Abe displays across these three books. The Box Man is a philosophical mystery about a man who lives inside of a giant cardboard box before his box is stolen. It has an inventive metafictional structure where the words you read are allegedly written — in different pens and pencils — by the narrator…or possibly multiple narrators. Secret Rendezvous is the most straightforwardly Kafkaesque of the three, with a character trying to find his wife in a labyrinthian hospital controlled by an absurd bureaucracy. It also has some bizarre body horror elements, such as a man who turns himself into a horse by stitching another man’s legs and penis onto his body. The Ruined Map is a hardboiled detective novel, albeit one still taking place in an off-kilter, absurd world.
Both of these authors remind me that you can truly do anything in fiction as long as you have the willingness to let your eye look at whatever it wants to gaze upon, no matter how bizarre.
For contemporary books, I started the year reading the novel that was perhaps the best literary novel of 2014: Nell Zink’s The Wallcreeper. Zink’s prose is totally fearless and alive. I loved every page.
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Molly writes in with a question about Italo Calvino’s The Baron in the Trees.I am having a book club meeting to discuss The Baron in the Trees, by Calvino. I am having the hardest time finding discussion questions. Any leads?Millions contributor Emre has read the book, but he’s out of the country and unreachable at the moment and I’ve never read it. Still, I figured with all the collective knowledge out there we could get some good answers to this one. So how about it folks? Can anyone out there help Molly out? Leave your suggestions in the comments.
Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quixote has been on my reading list for a long time. Upon Max Magee’s suggestion I picked up the recent translation by Edith Grossman sometime in January 2004. It took me a good 11 months to work up the appetite, desire and guts to indulge in this phenomenal piece of writing. Described by many as the beginning of modern novel, Don Quixote relates a crazed Alonso Quixano’s sallies from his native La Mancha to various provinces of Spain. Beyond the usual adventures of the windmills, freeing of the slaves, and fair Dulcinea – all of which are a part of every child’s introduction to fairy tales and literature – lies the second part of the novel. Cervantes published two Don Quixote novels, and whereas the first one colors our imaginations as children, the Part II – published ten years after Part I, in 1615 – brings forth Cervantes as a witty author who employs Don Quixote’s insanity to illustrate the genius of his loyal servant Sanco Panza; the trivial entertainments of the Duke and the Duchess, whose cunning knowledge of the first novel, which is referred to numerous times in Part II, provide for the creative and chivalric plots that the nobles employ to ridicule Don Quixote; and a grand finale of sobriety that settles for once and all the history of Don Quixote. Cervantes ends the illustrious misadventures of Don Quixote to prevent new issues of fake Don Quixote novels from appearing. Cervantes’ answer to authors who attempted to profit on the first Don Quixote’s success, one Alonso Fernandez de Avellaneda in particular, is derisive and rash – bordering on self flattery through his diatribe on other authors. Don Quixote opened a new window in my mind with its accessible language – thanks mostly to Grossman’s spectacular translation – and cunning use of word plays, romantic approach to the bygone days of knight errantry, mockery of social dogmas, integration of tangent plots – oh yes, you read at least 3 unrelated short stories in the novel – and eternally modern style. The novel’s mix of fantasy and reflections on society definitely place it in the pile of books the are must re-reads, albeit not in the short term – it will certainly take me a while to put aside another chunk of time for the second serving.I was distracted at times from reading Don Quixote by Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray and Other Writings. Matt Clare, a close friend and literary fiend, was kind enough to present me with this magnificent work that captures a unique time period in British society. Clare’s inscription on the cover reads “no Baron [on the Trees, by Italo Calvino, which I had presented to him earlier] to be sure, [but] the Lord may still have something to teach us.” Indeed, Lord Henry Wotton quickly became a new idol of mine, decadent and lost, with no particular interest in anything that the London high society of the 1880s held dear, nor any high aspirations that provided for the chatter at tea parties. The Jekyll and Hyde nature of The Picture of Dorian Gray presents vain struggles and trivial issues in an intentionally serious tone, which mocks the core of British culture at the time. There is much to be said about the twists and turns of The Picture of Dorian Gray, which keep the reader on his toes and makes the story an amazing, insightful and philosophical page turner. What follows in the 4 plays and final ballad also collected under the same volume (Lady Windermere’s Fan, Salome, An Ideal Husband, The Importance of Being Ernest, and The Ballad of Reading Gaol) is not as intense as the opener, but nevertheless very entertaining and universal. Oscar Wilde’s only drawback is the limited nature of his subjects, but he does a phenomenal job in conveying the stuck up nature of the crowd that he once was a part of.Related: Max’s thoughts on Don Quixote
I could not stop. I became a Calvino junkie and read The Nonexistent Knight and The Cloven Viscount, two separate stories collected in one volume as suggested by the titles, and a book along the same lines as The Baron in the Trees. The stories are about an exemplar non-existent knight that the king’s army despises because he lacks human vice, and a generous and noble viscount who is split in half during battle, hence losing his good side and becoming evil. Both are great fairy tales with a grain of cynicism, a touch of distrust bred by 20th century politics (Calvino was also a linguist and deeply involved with leftist politics, which at times caused him discomfort), and the humanist wishes of an idealist.As with Kapuscinski, I had to take a break from Calvino, and picked up Arthur Nersesian’s Chinese Takeout. I picked Chinese Takeout because the picture on the book cover was of 7B, a one time favorite dive of mine that was four blocks away form our East Village apartment. It was one of those books that I kept seeing and telling myself that I would get it the next time I saw it, just because of its cover. As luck would have it, I really enjoyed the story of Orloff, the book’s protagonist. He walks through streets most familiar and beloved, sells books on West 4th street (in front of the NYU library and Stern School of Business), struggles to make it as a painter, lives in the back of his van, deals with junkies, and longs for the days when the lower east side was a cheap haven for artists. A romantic and nostalgic look at the areas currently being overridden by hipsters and $150 torn diesel jeans (my personal favorites). Or (short for Orloff) still exists in Manhattan, and walks those streets and probably does sleep in the back of his van or at the rent controlled apartment of his friend from time to time. Chinese Takeout is a good New York story that one should read on the beach during a vacation or in the subway.Previously: Part 1, 2, 3
I switched gears with Henry Miller’s The Air-Conditioned Nightmare, which describes the author’s travels through the South upon his return to the United States. Miller was very disgruntled when he returned to New York from Paris. He thought the outlook of the community was narrow, the morals corrupt, and the industrial greed an instrument of spiritual death. Hence, he embarked on a drive that took him down south and west to California, a trip during which he marvels at how the rural, farming South kept its soul and culture and did not succumb to the machines and skyscrapers of the North. It is an interesting account, a praise for the warm, hospitable South, and a big outburst at, and a rejection of, what the North offers. An Air Conditioned Nightmare is entertaining and deep, filled with interesting characters and encounters along the way, and depressing with regards to the industrial monster of a picture Miller paints regarding the United States.At this time, I felt the urge for a break and picked up J.D. Salinger’s Nine Stories. The genius of Salinger is probably unparalleled and Nine Stories is a good testimony to it. The bizarre stories and intricate web of characters leaves the reader dazzled at the end of the 6 hours in which you fly through the pages. Nine Stories is a great collection that you can keep in your bathroom, on your coffee table or on the bedside table, and pick at any random moment for instant joy. Nine Stories put me in such a good mood that I decided to give Italo Calvino, whose Invisible Cities I read under undesirable circumstances and did not enjoy much, a second try. The novel was The Baron in the Trees. The book is one of Calvino’s earlier novels and is heavily influenced by his studies of Italian folk literature. The rebellion of the heir baron to his family’s strict rules places him on top of a tree, which he refuses to leave. From these circumstances a character is born who is at first considered a lunatic and then a hero, who fights fires and supports Napoleon’s troops, lectures the town on citizenship, falls in love with a duchess, and meets other people who are exiled to tree tops by the Spanish church. A marvelous story, with great wit and imagination, and all the characteristics of love, chivalry, betrayal, family ties, dilemmas and unreal circumstances found in the favorite tales of childhood. A very happy book indeed.
My friend Edan writes in to remind me about the latest issue of McSweeney’s. Typically I find that McSweeney’s are fun to look at, a mishmosh of interesting design and writing that doesn’t stick to your bones, but I’m genuinely excited about this McSweeney’s in a way that I haven’t been excited about any previous issue. This one is their comics issue with a cover designed by Chris Ware and comics by R. Crumb, Art Spiegelman, Daniel Clowes, Lynda Barry, and others as well as essays by Michael Chabon, Ira Glass, John Updike, Chip Kidd, and others. These are all favorites of mine in the world of comics and books. I’m looking forward to reading it. Edan also told me to have a look at The Phaidon Atlas of Contemporary World Architecture, which she describes as “awesome and big.” I would have to agree. Go here and click on “look inside” to check it out.I also got a note from my friend Emre who really wants me, and everyone, to read Italo Calvino. He is a most trusted fellow reader so I feel confident when I pass along his Calvino recommendations: “pick up a copy of The Baron in the Trees and indulge in it. The Nonexistent Knight is pretty good too, Invisible Cities is ok, or maybe I couldn’t get into it because I read it on the subway.” Thanks Edan and Emre!