Translated Portuguese literature lies mired in five names: postmodernist celebrities Fernando Pessoa and António Lobo Antunes; José Saramago, whose shiny Nobel Prize mesmerizes publishers crow-like; and the classic authors Eça de Queiroz and Luís de Camões. These are the ones that get translated and retranslated year in, year out, as if there weren’t room for more. For evidence you need look no further than the silence over Raul Brandão’s recent debut in English. Fortunately Dedalus Press, the leading publisher of diverse Portuguese literature, insists in changing things, and that’s how we got Jorge de Sena’s The Prodigious Physician, translated by Margaret Jull Costa. In principle, things should have worked out better for Jorge de Sena. After all, he made a wise career choice when he moved to the U.S. to teach first at the University of Wisconsin, then at UC Berkeley. His tenacious, if obscure, longevity in English sort of proves this: to date one novel, a short-story collection, and several volumes of his gorgeous poetry have come out. Alas, all have quickly faded in the face of general indifference. Why does he keep getting new chances? Writers don’t become famous only because of their literary merit; it helps when influential agents notice them: George Steiner’s infatuation with Pessoa did a lot for him; Saramago (who in the past was Sena’s editor) probably wasn’t badly served by Harold Bloom judging him “the greatest living novelist.” Even Lobo Antunes has acknowledged that his breakthrough stemmed from American literary agent Thomas Colchie championing him, lending support to the opinion that to be known worldwide is to be known in English first and foremost. No such paladin ever defended Sena; instead his translations have been living off dividends from his college career. It’s telling that he’s been previously translated by former colleagues and students, whose prefaces betray that most Portuguese of feelings, saudade, the painful longing for an absent friend, in this case a man remembered at campus as an erudite, generous, fascinating figure. Born in 1919, Sena began publishing poems in the early 1940s in a magazine called Cadernos de Poesia, around which coalesced a band of young poets bent on revitalizing Portuguese poetry. By bringing to each verse an anger and brutality unusual in a country of mild-mannered lyricists, replacing Portuguese poetry’s propensity for sentimentality with philosophical reflection, and dialoging with Europe’s Modernism instead of burrowing in parochialism, he did just that. An engineer by education, he also pursued criticism and is rightfully considered one of Portugal’s greatest literary critics. In a country that turned to France alone for literary fashions, his knowledge of the English language and literature, so unusual at the time, allowed him to carve a niche for himself. He translated, among others, Thomas Love Peacock, Eugene O'Neill, Evelyn Waugh, Ernest Hemingway, Graham Greene, William Faulkner, Edgar Allan Poe, and Emily Dickinson, whom he adored. (English was such a mysterious entity to his peers that he had to endure accusations of plagiarizing foreign poets.) His anglophilia also allowed him to widen studies about Pessoa. He translated his English-language poems and studied the legacy of English culture on Pessoa, who had been raised in British South Africa. (Sena once had to confirm to a scholar that Aleister Crowley, whom Pessoa had personally met, was not a fabrication of the jesting poet.) Sena’s lifelong interest in Pessoa made him a suitable candidate to bring order to what is nowadays known as The Book of Disquiet, and he was one of the first editors to take a swing at it. He worked at it for five years before giving up. At the time he was living in exile in Brazil, a predicament that posed logistic problems about getting copies of the original manuscripts. Sena had fled there in 1959 after participating in a botched coup to overthrow the dictatorship ruling since 1926. In a move worthy of Pessoa, all that remains of this endeavor is his 60-page introduction for a nonexistent edition of Disquiet. Tragically, Brazil fell under a right-wing regime in 1964, too, and the following year he took up a teaching job in the U.S., remaining there until his death in 1978. Between his stay in Brazil and move to America, Sena published The Prodigious Physician, one of his most popular works. It originally belonged to a short story collection finished in 1964 and published two years later, Novas Andanças do Demónio (some stories were included in By the Rivers of Babylon). The novella didn’t ride solo until 1977; in the accompanying preface, Sena explained that at the time he didn’t have the conditions to publish it separately, so he let it “hitch a ride” with the other stories when an editor showed interest in them. The Prodigious Physician sounds like something in the vein of Angela Carter’s mixture of erotica and myth. It chronicles the carefree wanderings of a beautiful young physician whose soul has been sold to the devil; who has a magical hat that grants any wish, from raising the dead to traveling in time; and whose blood has healing properties. These elements, plus the idea of an infatuated devil who lifts his beloved’s legs when the Inquisition tries to hang him for heresy, come from the fusion and rearrangement of two medieval tales. Sena was no different from other writers at the time who were looking backwards to move away from realist fiction: Italo Calvino reusing the chivalric romance in The Nonexistent Knight or John Barth with the picaresque The Sot-Weed Factor. In Spain, Gonzalo Torrente Ballester was doing something even stranger in Don Juan by unleashing the legendary lover on the 20th century. Even so, for Portuguese literature at the time, this was a pretty weird book. Of the three types of writers co-existing within the regime we can dispense with two: the right-wing official author and the left-wing socialist realist, rechristened neo-realista (new realist) to avoid censorship. Often clumsy hacks prized mostly for extra-literary reasons, their value inflated insofar as they stuck to and flattered the pinched ideologies that respectively underpinned them. Sena, a life-long communist but too autonomous to follow party lines, belonged to the third type that just wanted to get on with the usual business of making great literature. As such, his fury over factions informed his own fiction. If readers keep this in mind, they’ll appreciate this deceptively straightforward novella a lot better. The Prodigious Physician seems mathematically engineered to piss off fascists and neo-realists alike with democratic distribution. The collection it originally came in was particularly offensive because it was a rare incursion into a genre Portuguese authors seldom explored -- fantasy. To make matters worse, the preface put forth a deliberate attack on “the second-rate aesthetics of the oh-so-esteemed traditional realism.” (I don’t understand why Dedalus didn’t add value to this slim volume by appending the original prefaces.) If Sena had filled a previous collection with quotidian observations and autobiographical tinges, this one basked in what he called “the fantastic realism or the imaginative historicism,” modes he judged better suited to depict his time than realism, which to him was almost “a spurious way of immobilizing reality, which, by its nature, is a continuous process.” Instead of parading masses of peasants in fields and proletarians in factories, Sena invoked mythical and historical figures; instead of Capital, he pillaged 14th-century tomes for ideas. Even more perversely, Sena actually cared about style, even cared about difficulty. Jull Costa keeps intact his page-long paragraphs, interpolated with metrically rigorous poems, sometimes cascading down labyrinthine sentences with irregular punctuation. (If I had to quibble, I’d say she only missed the vocabulary’s archaic flavor.) All of this flew in the face of neo-realism’s doctrinal frugality; its motto was that books should be simple enough for the people to read them. Well, when you stop to think that around 1960 Portugal had a 30 percent illiteracy rate, you can estimate just how simple simple was. Even Sena’s use of double columns encompassed a challenge to ideologies that professed to hold the Truth. What better way of questioning the regime’s and the neo-realists’ pretentions to infallibility than narrating the same event in simultaneous columns with contradictory facts? Reality, for him, wasn’t realistically rendered unless fragmented and subjective. The Prodigious Physician also opposed the regime because it traduced conformity, sexual abstinence, and Catholic values. Few of his readers would expect a scene brimming with amoral homoeroticism between the protagonist and the devil: He lay there in a pose of patient, indifferent abandon, his head resting on his arms, and allowed the Devil, who was invisible, to work himself up into a frenzy of desires. Long caresses ran lightly over his skin, whispered kisses nipped his body all over, hands lingered on his crotch, a hardness pressed against him, trying to penetrate him -- it had been the same ever since he had reached manhood and whenever he took off his clothes and was alone. He put up with it as he might do with an unavoidable affliction, which neither excited him nor provoked feelings of horror or repugnance. Sex follows the nameless protagonist around, and he’s long stopped seeing it as sacred. The physician was sold to the devil when his grandmother, “seeing him still prepubescent, but with the body of a grown man, had summoned the Devil, who had immediately enfolded him in a passionate embrace.” In exchange for his indifference, “he had received immense powers and, over time, had come to think that the Devil wasn’t really asking such a lot of him, contenting himself with a mere obliging availability, in which he, the young man, did not participate with so much as a gesture or a tremor.” As the novella opens, he stops by a riverbank to freshen up, and a trio of maidens invite him to frolic. After that, they take him to a castle, where a widow languishes from an unknown ailment; he uses his blood to cure her, and they fall in love. In this enchanted castle gender roles have been subverted, and women rule over men who “had quite forgotten their position in society, and were made equal in sharing the same pleasures and submitting to the same rules of obedience.” The novella’s a paean to sexual freedom, but if it looks like Sena was foreshadowing hippie communes, for a Portuguese reader it’s hard not to think of Camões’s epic poem The Lusiads, where Venus rewards harried sailors with a magical island filled with Cupid-intoxicated horny nymphs in a dazzling display of eroticism. Sena was not only one of Camões’s greatest scholars, he also shared his visionary hope in a paradisiacal society where women and men are equal and live bound by love. If I have a criticism to make, it’s that this spiritual love too often feels exclusively earthly. Sena may write that the physician finds in the widow “the love of which [the Devil] knows nothing, the pleasure he cannot feel, and the furious joy that, even without love, does not exist in the lewd pleasures he can offer,” but their relationship is rather cold. The novella’s complex meditations on love appeal more to my intellect than my heart. It rejects the soul (the Devil even claims it doesn’t exist) in favor of the body as the erotic center. Descriptions of breasts, thighs, hair, skin abound. Everybody ogles one another. The castle-dwellers party more than Poe’s noblemen keeping the plague out. Perhaps this was Sena’s goal, to emphasize the physicality of sex at the time when the regime controlled the body. He evidently relished in indecency, as the dirty epigraph by Arthur Rimbaud shows. But though I can appreciate the importance of transgression, gratification without an emotional grounding feels rather empty. Besides Rimbaud’s, there’s a second epigraph, belonging to 17th Jesuit priest Manuel Bernardes, author of a gigantic work of didactic moralizing. Readers won’t need to know that Sena considered the good priest a symbol of intellectual and moral backwardness and oppression to appreciate the joke of juxtaposing his earnestly pious sentences with Rimbaud’s scatology. He’s made of the same cloth as the novella’s castrating friars who prefer erecting scaffolds than their penises. In this part of the novella, Sena pushes too strongly in the direction of paper-thin parable when they unveil a “gigantic conspiracy by the Devil against the established order” that includes “sodomy, a whole range of crimes against nature, and a vast web of subversive propaganda.” And it’s hard not to see in Brother Anthony of Salzburg, “a famous expert and writer of treatises on matters infernal,” a caricature of dictator António Salazar. But Sena is not so much forcing a parable as stating that Portugal’s history had dead in its tracks. After three centuries under the Inquisition, followed by 100 years of relative freedom, a long dictatorship could only give the impression of static time: the present was the past, the past was the present. A few decades later, Lobo Antunes’s big Salazar novel, The Inquisitor’s Manual, would use the same metaphor. Instead of proclaiming a belief in progress, like neo-realist works, Sena’s novella hinges on subtle cycles of birth, death and rebirth. Reality may as well look back to see itself as if on a mirror. Ribald and raunchy, The Prodigious Physician is nevertheless tinged with pessimism. Unlike the neo-realists, Sena was too realistic to know that utopias never work. Although their books have aged badly, this novella continues to resonate in our time in the way it celebrates equality between women and men, sexual freedom over prudery, reason over fanaticism, and the individual over the state. Plus, Sena adds more context to translated Portuguese fiction, which often floats in an ahistorical vacuum, Sena’s blend of fantasy and realism predates José Saramago’s magical realism and allegories, and his rage at castrating tyrants brings to mind António Lobo Antunes. In The Prodigious Physician’s 100 pages we find all the main elements in the best contemporary Portuguese fiction. Jorge de Sena’s obscurity is a mystery, but the solution to that is simple and begins with reading this little masterpiece.
I became an editor, a notable fact, and for the next year, I floundered. All I wanted was a literary life -- a professional and artistic life defined by the act of creating literature, whether as a writer, a publisher of other writers, and even a curator of writers for live audiences -- but achieving a dream simultaneously reveals a void. At work, I apprenticed in New York to become a better editor; at home, with newly trained eyes, I reread my own writing, saw finally my own flaws. I handed Between the World and Me to my 59-year-old father for his birthday. Later that same weekend, I wrote an essay about the experience and the gift. After rereading the unpublishable and rejected essay, I woke up every morning at 5:00 am, brewed coffee, and sat down to write and read for three hours. I retreated from social media, and canceled plans, passed on after-work parties, readings, invitations for drinks, dinners, said no to offers to pick my brain, to brainstorm over beers. The resulting somnolence deteriorated my daily mood, and the isolation led to my accepting time’s endless assault against my writing should I refuse to work, age the partial total of wasted days. This began my year of reading, parallel with my year of rereading, contained within my year of life. I loved Haruki Murakami -- Kafka on the Shore, After Dark, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle -- and applauded 2666. I read My Struggle: Book 1, its marvelous second half haunted me for weeks, and I discovered why peers laugh at Knausgaard. I reread Why Black People Tend to Shout by Ralph Wiley, and dragged a slab of wood into our bedroom, near the window closest to the door, and placed it atop two steel trestles. I purchased a black notebook and entered with it a conspiratorial relationship without illusion in regard to my writing, that is, I no longer believed Moleskine, the brand, could make me a better writer, nor do diaries produce literature I care to read. The work proved increasingly difficult with each book I opened, with every essay I began and abandoned to a boneyard on my hard drive labeled files. From my desk, I watched as my neighbors lived their lives inside unveiled apartments, and pitied those who, after two feet of snow, went about the business of exhuming their cars. I read Distant Star, The Book of Disquiet, Sergio Y., The Story of My Teeth, Sudden Death, The Ballad of Black Tom, salt. by Nayyirah Waheed, In Gratitude, rest in peace, Labyrinths, Loitering again, Between Parentheses again, The Cross of Redemption again, and others. My colleagues were curious about my regimen; they asked me if it yielded results. I unlearned toxic assumptions with respect to the essay, as a form, initially ingested by happenstance and in proximity to the Internet, where essays proliferate. I thought about the essay collection, it too as a form, and how to warp it. By spring, I lapsed -- skipped a morning one week, two mornings the next -- until I stopped my morning exercises altogether. I needed the sleep, and the post-winter sun ruined my writing space with its light increasing in duration and strength. The four of us -- my partner and her twins -- coalesced around one other, traveling to Myrtle Beach and Big Indian, chaperoning my father and his wife over the Brooklyn Bridge. I glared at the black device on my desk as my father on speaker spoke in small talk about my grandmother, his mother, convalescing since July. She is 89. The doctors seem to be doing that shoulder-shrug thing they do when their science fails them and they, in turn, signal to us, the patient’s family, not to give up hope, but to accept that the hope we have is all the hope we can expect to receive. My 60-year-old father has still not read Between the World and Me, and there will be for him a small birthday party in New Jersey, after Thanksgiving, with home-cooked food and store-bought wine, with holiday music piped through Bluetooth speakers -- Boyz II Men’s Christmas album is as old now as The Temptations’ rendition of “Silent Night” was to me when I first heard it as a child, when my aunt in black swayed near the woodgrain floor speaker, holding a half-filled glass, her grimace illuminated by the garishly decorated tree lit with reds and blues, as the party turned down, as Christmas refused to relieve her of the turmoil her liquor unlocked -- and there will be some laughs, though muted by grief. I myself will not be there; I leave for Chicago and just last week, I rented a gray Dodge Dart from a sketchy Enterprise in Bay Ridge and drove to Vineland so I could attend the private viewing of my paternal uncle’s cooling body. Speaking of birthdays, he died one day before his own, at the age of 64, to cancer. In the wake, I stand before his body in the casket, in my black suit, holding a copy of Speak, Memory, which I first read back in 2008 or '09 but now have chosen to reread only after appearing here, inches from the coffin, the first time. The anachronistic book grounds me here, the second time, after I first witnessed my uncle’s evaporated body, scheduled for cremation tomorrow night, when I wondered how and why his final moments left a peaceful look on his graying, gaunt, sheared face. (I remember him for his gargantuan beard, gone now from real time.) On a round wood table beside the casket are his black leather cowboy boots doubling as vases for two bouquets of deciduous red and yellow roses. My grandmother is not in attendance, her frail body yoked to life-saving machines, to bags of fluid to keep her hydrated and sustained, since she refuses to eat, and I question her memory. When I visited her in the hospital hours before the wake, I did not mention my uncle’s death. Instead, we watched the news together, a local affiliate broadcasted from Philadelphia; the same black anchor from my childhood, he hasn’t aged a single day, I said to her. I knew she was told of her son’s death, but I was unsure if she remembered -- doctors and family members reported with greater frequency lapses in her short-term memory -- and I did not have the heart to break her heart all over again had she forgotten, so I said nothing, and softly held her hand. Lies and memoirs, said Roberto Bolaño, get along swimmingly. I feel accused of a crime, even though, strictly speaking, I do not consider myself a memoirist. Once fascinated by memoirs, I now avoid but not because of banality, that is, the requirement from critics that a memoirist’s life be thrilling, or extraordinary. I am as physically close to my uncle’s body as I’m willing to get, and no closer. I don’t recognize him, my living brain having to downshift to death, because he should be breathing, the movement registers as a detail about him, a major one easily overlooked until final exhalation. “Symbols and Signs,” a short story, first introduced me to Vladimir Nabokov; the insubordinate sentence first and finally revealed itself to me, through Nabokov; Literature marks the spot where generations of writers faithfully leap off, expecting to fly, only to slam face first into a pile of human bodies, but Vladimir the asshole soared, and writers will forever read and hate him, never understanding how he defied the laws, and why not them. The last time the boy had tried to do it, his method had been, in the doctor’s words, a masterpiece of inventiveness; he would have succeeded had not an envious fellow-patient thought he was learning to fly and stopped him just in time. What he had really wanted to do was to tear a hole in his world and escape. A story circulates the wake: When asked whether or not he had money for his own funeral, my uncle laughed and replied "I’ll be dead and it’ll be someone else’s problem," and laughed again. That he laughed twice pleases me. Knowing my uncle, he was terrified of death but never beguiled by it; his callous stance toward the living in the face of his own demise seems to me a pragmatic, if heartless one. Speak, Memory describes the nothingness that bookends the life cycle of every organism as two black voids, fore and aft. A local preacher and friend to my cousin, the son of the deceased, says now in the wake, at the lectern, that in his final hours my uncle accepted the Lord into his life -- I am skeptical, but if he was pragmatic enough to leave behind a funereal bill for the family to settle, then indeed he would wait until the last minute to resolve a situation that, prior to, existed but didn’t press itself upon his life. When I face the second black void, aft, I might rethink my position on the case of Me v. God, so to hear about my uncle’s late-hour, deathbed capitulation to Christ only makes the need for me to find him all the more urgent. Where is my uncle now? The prison of time, said Nabokov, is spherical and without exits. Speak, Memory maps a human life during societal deterioration, a process relevant to the new climate. Nabokov’s home was an idyllic, plentiful wonderland centered inside a disturbed Russia approaching back-to-back revolutions. Nabokov’s childhood home was torched, leaving behind the iron staircase fashioned by his paternal grandfather; Vladimir, his mother, and his siblings fled for their lives to southern Crimea, while his father, Vladimir Dmitrievich Nabokov, remained behind, and was later assassinated in Berlin. The life of my family, said Nabokov, had completely changed; "we were absolutely ruined...the complete curbing of the public’s minds was achieved...in no time after the main contingent of the intellectuals had escaped abroad, or had been destroyed...the loss of my country was equated for me with the loss of my love." Men who write about their homes should have their own wing inside a burning library, but I also believe in literature’s expanding universe, how, despite one million stories, we’ll read another story, and one more, year after year. The wake is sparsely populated with family, some skeletal remains of fringe friends, a dozen former coworkers, a few lovers. It’s unclear how long ago he was diagnosed, though we suspected for years: My uncle was a nurse, and so is my father, and three or four of my aunts, and twice as many cousins, not to mention my grandmother, retired; his family knew his prognosis just by observing him. I sit with my right leg crossed over the left, Speak, Memory and my black device in my lap, as I stare at the casket, thinking about my year of reading and the black bolt above my childhood home in Newfield, adjacent to Vineland, captured with my device’s camera. I pull over to the side of the road, in front of the house my family no longer owns, and snap a few photos from the rental car. The November sky reminds me of the dulling bright eyes of a black dog thrashed by a heartless owner retarded by mediocrity. My father and his brother play each other in a game of tennis; with afros, they ride on motorcycles, side by side, down route 55. My brothers and I slip out the wake for a quick cigarette in the parking lot as the nearby cathedral bell tolls nine. The seats in front of me are empty, so I have a direct line of sight to my uncle’s face. My grandmother touches the screen fastened to my wrist; the nurses have removed her rings; on a rolling tray next to her hospital bed is a framed photo of her husband, my uniformed grandfather, who died 363 days before my birth. From the corner of my left eye, past my black eyeglasses frames, I see my father and his wife, frozen, clutching each other as they gaze at his brother, thinking god knows whatever those new to senior citizenship consider during a wake pre-cremation. My uncle drives an oxblood stick-shift Corvette convertible and parks it outside the strip club from where he plucks a date to escort him to the family barbecue. There she stands, the white dancer in black tights, and there we stand, the black judges holding red cups, bound by blood. Our scientific laws dictate that upon death, for maximum efficacy within, and least disquieting entry into, the loop, our bodies are to be burned and transformed into the ash we, for centuries before Reform, tried to hide with shame during harsh, white winters. More from A Year in Reading 2016 Do you love Year in Reading and the amazing books and arts content that The Millions produces year round? We are asking readers for support to ensure that The Millions can stay vibrant for years to come. Please click here to learn about several simple ways you can support The Millions now. Don't miss: A Year in Reading 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005
I (like to) believe that in the year 2002, when I started to write my first novel, The Revolutionaries Try Again, I approached English, my second language, as a system that, through minor detonations of syntax, could be restructured to accommodate my preoccupations. Constraining the use of conjunctions to contort sentences? Worked. Blanking parentheticals after writing them (no seas curiosa Jessica) and then trying to write about their potential content to dramatize blanks in memory? Did not. Relying on chance to retrofit associations into a mostly blank memory of my time at the Hospice Luis Plaza Dañin? Perhaps. At my Jesuit high school in Guayaquil, Ecuador, I belonged to a volunteer group known as the apostolic group. Every Saturday we visited the old and the infirm at the hospice Luis Plaza Dañin. I don’t remember much about my time there besides a long hallway, benches, baskets with bread. Why the impulse to write about what’s mostly a blank? A cynic (like me) might contend that, since the hospice experience fits into the coming of age narrative (boy visits the old and the infirm, hands them bread and milk, realizes the world contains unspeakable suffering, etc.), I am, in retrospect, assigning great significance to my time at the hospice Luis Plaza Dañin. The contention of the cynic (still me) faces complications. Since back then I’d wanted to become a Jesuit priest, those visits to the hospice Luis Plaza Dañin were obvious manifestations of that impulse to become a Jesuit priest, an impulse that to this day provides a dangerous type of solace, incidentally, because if you persist in seeing yourself as the Jesuit priest boy who cared for the old and the infirm, you are prone to overlook the almost nothing you are doing for others now. How to write about mostly blanks? Of course I could have retrofitted so-called telling details, scents, quirks of character, sequences out of the Conflict-Action-Resolution machine, but because the rest of my life already contained so much machine crap (dayjobs, ads, diaper dialogues), and because I believed literature’s sole purpose was to not be machine crap, I attempted alternatives. How about if I open three books at random, I thought, jot down whatever I find compelling in those pages, and see if what I jot down yields any associations that I can outstretch along the long hallway of the hospice Luis Plaza Dañin? Not everything in chance is chance, John Cage said. One must learn to ask the right question: what are the three books that come to mind when I think of the hospice Luis Plaza Dañin? The answer came quickly: The Book of Psalms, The Book of Disquiet by Fernando Pessoa, The End of Story by Lydia Davis. The first two came to mind because of their religious associations (the cover of my edition of The Book of Disquiet contains a man in agony, though later someone pointed out the man is just a goalie failing to catch a soccer ball). The End of The Story came to mind because to me it’s a performance of how forgetting the contours of the loved one does not diminish the intensity one feels for the loved one. According to my notes, on March 3rd, 2012, I completed the first cycle of opening each of these three books at random. The next day I completed three more. Only the first two cycles yielded immediate reactions. The reactions to the passages below are from 2012, the reactions to my reactions from 2016. (1) From The Book of Psalms: Do not be mute and do not be quiet, god. Reaction: What did the elderly think of us? Were they really waiting for us on that long hallway? Or were they always there in the afternoons? Where else would they go? None of them had their own room. Reaction to reaction: The muteness of god many of us members of the apostolic group would experience years later, the muteness of the elderly over the years since I couldn’t remember anything they’d said to me, the white noise of the train in The Silence by Ingmar Bergman -- all of these might have played a role in wondering what the elderly thought of us. I remembered an immense room we weren’t supposed to enter or didn’t want to enter but did, an empty room with tall ceilings and rows of beds where those who were too sick to walk to the long hallway remained. (2) From The Book of Disquiet: Most people are other people. Reaction: Did I wonder who the elderly were as I am doing now? Who were they when they were young? Did they also spend their lives in pursuit of something they didn’t want? Reaction to reaction: We were probably too enamored with our role as saviors of the old and the infirm to wonder who they were, although it isn’t farfetched to imagine many of us did ask them who they used to be, or perhaps they told us without us having to ask them, given we did spend hours sitting next to them on the benches along the long hallway. (3) From End of the Story: When I returned he said very little to me and kept turning away from me, and because he kept turning away from me, I was frightened and couldn’t sleep. Reaction: Perhaps there’s an elderly man along the long hallway who, because he kept turning away from us, frightened us? Reaction to reaction: I can see now why I might have found this passage about turning away compelling. It’s easier to invent someone who’s turning away from you because you don’t have to imagine a face. I also associated this turning away with the men in "The Subway" by George Tooker, although in that painting the men are not turning away but staring in hiding. To imagine the old and the infirm turning away from me felt like the correct representation of them. No matter how often I’ve tried to dismiss the almost blank memory of the hospice Luis Plaza Dañin, the feeling that every Saturday we abandoned the old and the infirm has not subsided. This pious retrospective, the cynic (you know who) might add, is useless. Except perhaps to create the illusion you’re a good person. I don’t disagree. Fiction isn’t meant to be useful though. These are just my attempts at remembering my time at the hospice Luis Plaza Dañin. The rest of the cycles did not yield enough variations in the material. Seek his presence always, The Book of Psalms said, for instance, but I already knew the answer to the reaction I’d jotted down (and yet was god’s presence to be found in that long hallway?). Asleep, I was even more helpless against them, Lydia Davis wrote, and yes, I was helpless against the memory of old and the infirm, whether I was asleep or awake, but how to represent this helplessness without overdramatizing the minute impact of this helplessness? Perhaps I did not ask the right question. By focusing on books that linked too closely to the hospice Luis Plaza Dañin, I wasn’t likely to unearth new material. For other sections of The Revolutionaries Try Again, I had already tried to focus on books that had no relationship to my content in the hopes that this juxtaposition (the streets of Guayaquil + interviews with John Cage, for instance) would inject new language into content I was too familiar with. But I wasn’t after new material. I was after an atmosphere in which to think about the hospice Luis Plaza Dañín. Since I had already decided not to invent what I couldn’t remember, the exercise of chance might have created an atmosphere in which to obsess about what I could remember, and it was this narrowing of obsession that (I like to believe) yielded the first series of sentences I would later call “performance of an impulse,” a type of sentence that eschews narration (for the most part) but creates dramatic tension by obsessing on the impulse behind the sentence. Here, then, is the performance of the impulse to remember the hospice Luis Plaza Dañín, which appears in chapter XIII of The Revolutionaries Try Again: The long hallway where the old and the infirm waited for the apostolic group, Leopoldo thinks, the long hallway like a passageway inside cloisters or convents where the old and the infirm waited for the apostolic group every Saturday from 3:00 to 6:00, the long hallway with its hollowed benches alongside its walls where the old and the infirm waited for the apostolic group to hand them sugar bread and milk, where the apostolic group performed cheerfulness and chattiness for the old and the infirm, the long hallway that’s probably empty at night just as it is empty for Leopoldo tonight despite all those Saturdays he’d spent there when he was fifteen or sixteen years old, all those Saturdays he spent in that long hallway at the hospice Luis Plaza Dañín trying to cheer up the old and the infirm who’d been forsaken by their families or who had no families or who had nowhere else to go, who had toiled in menial jobs the entirety of their lives just like the masses of people Leopoldo will encounter inside the bus on his way to Julio’s party tonight -- did you even ask the old and the infirm about their jobs, Leopoldo? what could you have possibly said to them to cheer them up? did you actually cheer them up or were you simply a reminder to them that god’s blessings were elsewhere like they’ve always been? -- whose last days were spent along a sunless hallway that smelled like the eucalyptus and menthol ointments they rubbed on their chests, which must have reminded them of the Merthiolate their mothers would swab on their scraped elbows and knees, whose last evenings were spent on donated hospital beds inside rooms with unreasonably high ceilings (why did the Jesuits build those rooms with such high ceilings? so that when the time came for the old and the infirm to die the priests could direct them to the vast pointlessness of the lord above?), inside rooms where Leopoldo and Antonio would stroll among the donated hospital beds with their bread baskets just in case they missed someone on the hallway, just in case someone couldn’t get out of bed but still wanted a sugar bun (what did the Jesuits think this exposure to the suffering of the old and the infirm would do to a band of scrawny fifteen year olds? did the Jesuits think that it would change their lives? that they would grow up to be stalwarts against suffering and injustice instead of growing up to be just like everyone else except every now and then they feel guilty about the suffering of the old and the infirm yet at the same time feel superior to everyone else because they were such good Samaritans then?), the long hallway where the faces and names of the old and the infirm continue to slip from him, year after year one more conversation or gesture or emotion vanishing from that long hallway like a punishment, although if you ask him about it Leopoldo will tell you that he’s not fifteen anymore and does not believe in punishments handed down from a god who’s in any case too busy not existing just as Leopoldo’s too busy not existing or barely existing in that long hallway in the hospice Luis Plaza Dañín. Image Credit: Pixabay.
1. The first thing to notice about Lisbon is its relative quiet. The people tend to walk soundlessly through the streets, and the cars silently creep their way up and down the many hills. The most jarring noise comes from the ancient "eléctricos," the name for the creamy yellow trams that screech up the hills. Lisbon's charming sleepiness, I discovered, was not unique to me: In the light morning mist of mid spring the Baixa comes sluggishly awake and even the sun seems to rise only slowly...A few passers-by signal the first hesitant stirrings of life in the streets and high up at a rare open window the occasional early morning face appears. As the trams pass, they trace a yellow, numbered furrow through the air, and minute by minute the streets begin to people themselves once more. Thus observes Bernardo Soares from his café table on a sidewalk esplanade in The Book of Disquiet, the largely forgotten modernist classic by seminal Portuguese writer Fernando Pessoa. For my first trip to Lisbon, I knew I wanted to immerse myself during my four-day jaunt to the beautifully tiled, outmoded, and wholly Romantic Portuguese capital, which was how I found myself poring over Pessoa's The Book of Disquiet at his former café haunt, A Brasileira, several yards from the bronze statue that bears his likeness. Pessoa, often considered a writer lost to time, was a transformational Modernist who still has a strong presence in Lisbon -- at least in the form of statues and prominence of place in the windows of Bertrand's (one of the world's oldest bookstores) on Rua Garrett. He is often compared to Franz Kafka: Both men are strongly associated with one place, be it Prague or Lisbon, and both died in obscurity, with much of their writing being discovered after their respective deaths. Pessoa felt himself a permanent outsider looking in on life in Lisbon, and much of these meditations were found on scraps of paper in an old trunk in his room, later turning into collections of poetry or The Book of Disquiet, as narrated by Bernardo Soares. Bernardo Soares would become Fernando Pessoa’s favorite and most prolific pseudonym, but Soares quickly grew from a name into its own life and person. The existence of Soares, as well as Ricardo Reis, Alberto Caeiro, and 70 other of Pessoa’s identities are known as "heteronyms" for their expansive individual lives and personalities. For Pessoa, Soares, Reis, and Caeiro were people with desires, dreams, personalities, histories, and styles all their own. To say that Fernando Pessoa wrote The Book of Disquiet is disingenuous. Fernando Pessoa became Bernardo Soares, channeling each scrap of paper making up The Book of Disquiet through his alter ego. 2. The Book of Disquiet is much more philosophical quandary than it is a novel, and retroactively engineered at that, where various editors and translators arranged the hundreds of fragments and diary-type entries. As a result, no two editions are truly the same in order or content (my edition by the British publisher Serpent Tail Classics was on the slender side, only 272 pages, whereas the Penguin edition is 544 pages). Throughout the course of the "novel," Soares documents his days as a bookkeeper on Rua Douradores and the heavy ontological and existential musings that weigh down his hours, particularly the disconnect between the vivid world of the mind and the monotony of a daily, work-driven existence. As Soares writes, "my soul is a hidden orchestra; I know not what instruments, what fiddle strings and harps, drums and tambours I sound and clash inside myself. All I hear is the symphony." What makes Pessoa's creation of Soares so effective is the way that these feelings tap into the unspoken truths that most people feel, on those lonesome, idle days where it seems that the other seven billion people on this planet are automatons and that only you, standing in line at the grocery store or at the DMV, are perhaps the sole original spark in the universe -- an undisprovable treatise. 3. There is something uncanny in how approachable Lisbon is as a city and in Soares's writing. Despite its confusing and cramped streets, endless hills, and shabby buildings, when the wind blows off the Tagus you can smell the ocean. From the summit of most hilltops you can see the wide stretch of the river as it heads out to the Atlantic, and from this it is simple to see how an entire culture could be so tied to the sea as the Portuguese are. Perhaps there is an antiquated magic in the air and a certain ancestral kinship in the city’s layout. Soares notes it, too: "I love these solitary squares that are dotted amongst the quiet streets and are themselves just as quiet and free of traffic. They are things that wait, useless clearings amidst distant tumults. They are remnants of village life surviving in the heart of the city." Lisbon, at times, feels caught in amber. From the top of the old Moorish quarter of Alfama, the medieval castle of São Jorge still stands sentinel over the city. The little trams, the only really rational way to negotiate the steep hills, still wind up Alfama as they have done since the 1930s. When you ride one, you can see where the brass handles have been worn clean from the thousands of hands that have clung to them. Soares, too, rode the tram: I'm riding a tram and, as is my habit, slowly absorbing every detail of the people around me...I sense the loves, the secrets, the souls of all those who worked just so that this woman in front of me on the tram should wear around her mortal neck the sinuous banality of a thread of dark green silk on a background of light green cloth. Alfama was spared the worst of the apocalyptic 1755 earthquake that reshaped the city, and since Lisbon has avoided the terror of world wars and civil wars alike, Alfama is a look hundreds of years into the past, a place, like Soares, that the Portuguese always seem to be looking. While the fade of imperialism struck blows to all European powers, none have seemed to land in the same strange cultural stasis as Portugal and her former colonies. 4. Portuguese is the sixth most spoken language in the world and, according to UNESCO, the fastest-growing European language after English. Yet despite the over 250 million speakers, the cultural and literary influence of the Lusophone -- or Portuguese-speaking -- countries has dwindled to nearly nonexistent. This in itself is rather baffling; after the United States, the largest country and economy in the western hemisphere is, unexpectedly, Brazil. Yet Brazil has been notably minor in the "Latin American Boom" that made Spanish-language authors like Gabriel García Márquez, Carlos Fuentes, and Mario Vargas Llosa household names in the United States. In most American bookstores, the most prominent and well-represented Lusophone author is the Brazilian writer Paulo Coelho for his parable, The Alchemist. A coarse equivalent would be like having The Bridges of Madison County be the sole emissary of American letters to non-English-speaking countries. Somewhere along the way, Portugal, and her fellow Lusophones, lost the path of literary influence. The apathy towards reading and writing seems particularly dire in Brazil, as Vanessa Barbara, one of Granta's "Best Young Brazilian Writers," noted in an opinion piece for The New York Times titled, "Brazil's Most Pathetic Profession." "And yet, despite all this fanfare, when in Brazil, do not tell anyone you’re a writer. Not only will they deny you credit at the grocery store, but almost certainly they will laugh at you, asking right away: 'No, seriously. What do you do for a living?'" The paucity of Portuguese writing is a global deficit, for Portuguese is an undeniably beautiful language to the ear and wonderfully varied, from the lovely sing-songy rhythms of Rio de Janeiro to the muffled notes of Lisbon, where the ends of words become puffed from lips like a ring of smoke that so perfectly fits their mournful folk music of fado. Fado is one of Portugal’s strongest cultural touchstones, and, much like the blues in America, it is an ode to the mourning and melancholy days of a people and their history. 5. In Lisbon’s Bairro Alto stands Tasca do Chico, a famous little bar that seats perhaps 20, shoulder to shoulder, with another 10 or so hanging out the windows. When the mood is right, the guitar and lute are plucked off the wall and the old owner with his pipe hushes the crowd, asking for silence as the two young men strum away and he begins to sing a melancholy tune about a girl he once knew. Soares describes fado, the wistful Portuguese folk music, as, through its veiled words and its human melody, the song spoke of things that exist in every soul and yet are unknown to all of us. He was singing as if in a trance, standing in the street wrapped in a sort of ecstasy, not even aware he had an audience...The song belonged to us all and sometimes the words spoke to us directly of the oriental secret of some lost race. Loss is a central part of life in Portuguese culture, particularly in Lisbon, where the gentle patina and crumble of an empire seems to hang in the air. The patron saint of the city is Saint Anthony, the patron saint of lost things. Empire, culture, literature all seem just out of reach in Lisbon, which in many ways is the most Portuguese feeling of all. Soares notes a longing for a past moment in Lisbon, for an unnamed soul who he has missed. "I love you as ships passing one another must love, feeling an unaccountable nostalgia in their passing." The Portuguese have a special word for this "unaccountable" feeling or longing to reach back into the past and capture a moment lost to the stream of time: saudade. Here, the translator Margaret Jull Costa translates it as "nostalgia" for the sake of simplicity. The original second clause reads as "há saudades desconhecidas na passagem," which might also be, "there are unknown saudades in the passage." Saudade is untranslatable into English and only really done by approximations like "nostalgia," but what Soares feels is keenly different throughout The Book of Disquiet, and his examples serve better than any definition. "With the aid of a cheap cigarette I can return, like someone revisiting a place where they spent their youth, to the time in my life when I used to smoke. The light tang of that cigarette smoke is enough for me to relive the whole of my past life." Saudade is the vividness of that past as well as the simultaneous reality that it is gone forever. To call Lisbon a "city of lost things," is to say it is a place where those losses can be felt in the cafés and the streets and with each "Bom dia" you might say to a garçom on the esplanade, just as Fernando Pessoa did. You can feel the loss of power, the loss of culture, the loss of self, and the loss of time, the quiet aging happening to everything going around you: the bougainvillea hanging from the window box, the cracked tiles of the apartment across the way, or the people at the next table down. For Soares, the past is unforgettable and loss is a most palpable thing, and so is Lisbon. But I love the Tagus because of the great city on its banks. I enjoy the sky because I see it from a fourth floor window in a street in the Baixa. Nothing in the countryside or in nature can give me anything to equal the ragged majesty of the calm moonlit city seen from Graça or São Pedro de Alcântara. For me no flowers can match the endlessly varied colors of Lisbon in the sunlight.
There has been a resurgence of interest in Robert Walser in the last few decades, but for many years preceding that, his readership was limited to those with a particular interest in early German modernism. Walser is something of a peripheral figure in the prose landscape of the 20th century, especially for English-language readers. I attribute this in part to the unclassifiable nature of his work, and also to the fact that he neglected to leave behind a magnum opus, or meisterwerk. Walser instead left us with an armada of what he called “little prose pieces” -- over 1,000 in fact -- and poems. Such fragmentary oeuvres are often neglected in favor of easily identifiable “great novels” by the more celebrated writers of last century. This is especially the case when the author eschewed the literary scene of his or her day, as Walser did. In all senses, Walser’s life was one lived on the margins of society. Born in Switzerland in 1878, Walser grew up in Biel, then a small town of around 15,000 inhabitants that marked the border between the French- and German-speaking regions of Switzerland. Walser left school at the age of 14 and spent the next 40 years in a peripatetic existence across Europe. In 1933 Walser was admitted to a sanatorium where he remained until his death in 1956. While Walser published a considerable volume of work up until his confinement, he was never a member of any literary or artistic milieu and one can only assume that this has contributed to his current lack of renown. One can think of other foreign-language writers whose scattergun approach and hermetic habits ensure they will keep Walser company in relative obscurity amongst today’s Anglophone readers. Fernando Pessoa, the Portuguese author of the fantastically disjointed The Book of Disquiet, comes to mind; as does the hugely underrated American master William Gaddis. Thankfully for those of us who cannot read Walser in the original German, The New York Review of Books is working to re-introduce the writer to the English-speaking world. NYRB currently has three Walser titles in its "Classics" stable, the most recent of which is A Schoolboy’s Diary. Comprising more than 70 of Walser signature short prose pieces, A Schoolboy’s Diary deserves special attention for the fact that the majority of its contents appear here for the first time in English. Damion Searls does the honors translating and Ben Lerner provides a concise yet crystalline introduction. I must admit that I originally picked the book up on seeing the names of Searls and Lerner rather than the author himself. I have read and thoroughly enjoyed Searls’s translations of Rilke and formed something of a crush on Lerner after reading his first novel and a number of his critical essays on art and poetry. But back to Walser... The first thing one notices on opening A Schoolboy’s Diary is the extreme brevity of the pieces within it, most running for only a page or two. The book is divided into three parts. The first is titled "Fritz Kocher’s Essays" and consists of an ingenious introduction by Walser himself followed by 20 essays purportedly written by an adolescent schoolboy on topics ranging from friendship to poverty to Christmas. Part II of the book collects a large number of pieces from Walser’s most productive period -- 1899 to 1925. The final section is dedicated to a single piece, the longest at 25 pages, titled "Hans." I will take the Walserian approach of discussing the pieces in reverse order for no other reason than it pleases me to do so, and for the sake of leaving the best until last. The Part III story, "Hans," is the longest piece in the book and it opens with a suitably long sentence, of which I will give you only this: "When Hans, somewhat later, after much in his life had changed and he found himself occupied with entirely different things, thought back every now and then..." This sentence, so Proustian in its combination of clauses and its thematic of memory, sets the tone for a story that revolves around the twin tropes of imagination and recollection. Indeed, in this story Walser ploughs much of the same fertile territory as his renowned French contemporary. The eponymous hero of the piece is described luxuriating in a series of recollections about his distant and not-so-distant past. The memories themselves are at times quaint and at times entertaining, but the beauty is in the prose’s celebration of memory itself. The usually coy Walser is at his most unrestrainedly poetic in the following passage: This and other things came to mind again and again in later years … To see an object again at a later hour purely through mere reflection may perhaps be more beautiful than the moment itself of actual experience and perception... But Walser departs from Proust in his exploration of the author’s presence in his own fiction. Proust allows himself to use his own name just twice in his million-word epic, A Recherche du Temps Perdu. Walser, on the other hand, is constantly referring to himself as the author of his texts. In fact, Walser even has occasion to chastise himself for such ostentation in "Hans," saying that as author he "would do best just to stay in the background and keep the most scrupulous silence, rather than pressing forward, which doesn’t look good at all." A subtler move in this regard is made when Walser digresses from the narrative, saying that he has become distracted from writing by the scent of rösti potatoes. The narrative is soon resumed, but only two pages later the protagonist, Hans, steps into a grocery store redolent of rösti. The astute reader cannot miss Walser’s game here as he masterfully comments on the tendency of the writer to imbue his stories with elements of his life, not least the environment in which he is writing. The stories in Part II are unlike "Hans," and more typically Walserian, in that they read like notebook jottings of an eccentric dilettante. They range from memoir to travel writing to fiction, though often they are simply notes towards these things. Indeed there is something refreshingly different about the pared back quality of the pieces. Walser economically inverts the classic axiom of "show rather than tell" and prefers to clearly enumerate the feelings and motivations of his characters rather than leave the reader wondering about them as in the micro-parody of Scandinavian fiction, "A Devil of a Story." But like the more fully realized "Hans," these small pieces are characterised by the same authorial self-consciousness. The writer repeatedly interjects into the narratives and descriptions as if he is embarrassed by having to keep up the charade that there is some omniscient voice dictating the words. After one particularly ornate description of a Swiss lake, Walser inserts a hyphen before addressing the reader directly, almost abashed at how sappy he sounded in the preceding paragraph. At another time, the reader gets a running commentary on how the author believes the story to be progressing, none too well in the light of Walser’s exclamation: "Behold the intricate and involved story I have so rashly embroiled myself in!" The role of the author in Part I is more complex. The reader of NYRB edition is afforded the same calligraphic frontispiece that would have met the German or Swiss reader opening the original in 1904. Beneath the ornate German text is the translation: "Fritz Kocher’s Essays -- Relayed by Robert Walser." The text opens with an introduction by Walser that begins: "The boy who wrote these essays passed away not long after he left school." Then follows 20 essays on discrete topics all written in the voice of an adolescent boy, albeit one with an exceptional grasp of language. Despite the disguise and the constant reference to the teacher, it should not take today’s reader long to realise that this is merely Walser in disguise. What a disguise though! This is the kind of chicanery one would expect to see in fiction after the Second World War, but here Walser is deploying it at the start of the century. There are many other things to like about Walser and this book, not least the beauty he locates in the quotidian and the almost spiritual appreciation he exhibits for nature. But it is Walser’s subtle self-referentiality that I wish to highlight, as I believe it is the quality that marks him out as truly ahead of his time. I was continually surprised at the brazen nature of Walser’s authorial interjections and the familiarity he exhibits with the reader. So much so that at certain times while reading the book I felt as if the sentences could have been the work of a late modernist or postmodernist writer. Take the following: "And so our story has reached a happy conclusion -- that’s the main thing, now the weather will be nice tomorrow." How difficult it is to square such writing with that of Walser’s close neighbors in France, Austria, and Germany. Not in Proust, Kafka, or Hesse will you find such point-blank piercing of the fourth wall of fiction. It comes as no surprise that Walser has long been considered an anomaly in the literature of the 20th century. He is entirely anomalous, but he is a beautiful anomaly and one who anticipated certain trends in avant-garde literature by half a century. Aside from all, this A Schoolboy’s Diary is damn fun to read, it feels like peering into a mind of fantastic imagination. Seldom do authors come along who can do so much with so little. In a world where attention spans are getting shorter by the minute, Walser’s micro-sketches may yet drag him out of obscurity and into the limelight.
It’s like a heartbeat, the opening bars of Arcade Fire’s “Reflektor” – the first song in the Canadian band’s new project, the one that sets the tone and the refrain: “It’s a reflection.” It’s the thirteenth song if you count backwards, the bridge between the two halves of the double album. It’s the mirror. My pulse quickens. I am alive. “We fell in love, alone on a stage / In the reflective age.” I am not alone here. I wait for it, the rhyme in the second stanza between the French and the English. This is the sublime: “Entre la nuit, la nuit et l'aurore. / Entre les royaumes, des vivants et des morts. / If this is heaven / I don't know what it's for / If I can't find you there / I don't care” (Between the night, the night and the dawn. / Between the realms, of the living and the dead). I drink the pairing of “morts” and “for” – I am giddily outside myself and deep in the beauty of the bond, if for a moment, between the two languages, the dead (“morts”) and the preposition of the future (“for”) – which in the fifth stanza transforms into the exquisite almost overlap of “morts” and “more.” I am free of the anxiety of not writing. I love that this song is about trying to find “a way to enter” – to find a portal, a connector – which one can read as the passage to the Underworld that Orpheus seeks in order to attempt his rescue of Eurydice (there are two tracks in Reflektor that make this theme clear, one named for each ancient Greek figure). I also read the song as seeking the throughway for creativity, for getting on with the act of making something. But “Reflektor” does not promise safe passage: “I thought, I found a way to enter/...I thought, I found the connector.” But I didn’t. Even the false promise is assuring. I want to look for my entry onto the page, into a line, an image, a something. I am afraid. I am in the middle of a rough descent, choppy in the air and in need of a pocket of smooth, a glide. The seven-plus-minute “Reflektor” has become a ritual these days. Blast it louder and maybe the portal will appear. Will I dive in? I am dancing in the backyard under the Brazilian pepper tree, the almost full moon keeping me company. But my movements are small, so I go inside, into the room where I work at my computer, and I dance around the desk – I turn up the music and it pulses through the wires into my ears – I am still too timid to blast the notes into the nakedness of night, or morning, the way I did when I was a teenager in my attic bedroom, or in college away from family and anything familiar. My new roommates knew what the Bjork loop meant. A litany of song to lift another day. Then I moved onto Radiohead. Then the Chilean hip hop band Tiro de Gracia and their first album Ser Humano (human being/to be human). Many writers, those attempting to write, like to talk about what helps them get in the mood, the zone. The organization of the objects on the desk, a particular pen or writing machine, the ritual reading of a specific text, a stack of books at the ready, music playing in the background. Maybe it’s not working and everything must be reversed: no music, no books, no wireless connection, no flesh and blood people nearby, no. I am pulled in by pairings, duets, correspondences. Elizabeth Bishop’s letters to Robert Lowell and his replies, Virginia Woolf’s Orlando doubled as male and female, Maria Bethânia’s covers of Vinicius de Moraes’s songs in the album Que falta você me faz (how I miss you, or, more literally, what an absence you do to me). But beware! The guide to the portal of creativity could be unreliable, even dangerous. When I started to read the work of Clarice Lispector, I took in one book after another, after another – I became immersed in the modes of her tragic heroines, their epiphanies seismic, but rarely conduits to change. I needed an epiphany in my own life. Lispector, and Bishop, hurled me to Brazil – that was the portal, for a time. Then a Brazilian scholar of Fernando Pessoa warned me that those who study the Portuguese poet put themselves at risk of uncanny episodes, darkness that cannot be returned, not least of all in The Book of Disquiet. Home again, Wallace Stevens hypnotized me out of writing. James Merrill and his Ouija board made me nervous. I mishear lyrics and when I realize that I am wrong, I keep singing them that way, an incantation gone slant, a twist that might do the trick. “Reflektor” begins: “Trapped in a prism, in a prism of light.” Over and over I sing: “Trapped in a prison, in a prison of love.” Is there a difference? My favorite misunderstanding lies in the middle of the song, the repeated refrain: “Just a reflection, of a reflection / Of a reflection, of a reflection, of a reflection / Will I see you on the other side? (Just a Reflektor) / We all got things to hide (Just a Reflektor).” And always, always, I sing in the spirit of how the phrase sounds when its iterations are layered on top of one another: “Just a reflection of of affection / of of affection / of of affection.” I am consistent, at least, in the theme of my misreading. What kind of love is this? Who is the “you” sung to? “If this is heaven / I need something more / Just a place to be alone / 'Cause you're my home.” If it is Orpheus, then Eurydice is the recipient of song; or, vice versa. If I am the one to sing, then it’s the person or the thing, the book or the phrase, that will help me find the portal, dare me to dive in, to begin. In “Then Ends Where Now Begins” – an essay in the stunning collection Eros the Bittersweet – Anne Carson writes: “For Sokrates, the moment when eros begins is a glimpse of the immortal ‘beginning’ that is a soul.” I am still here, now sitting at my desk, earbuds pressed into my ears. I have listened to the song too many times to say. Nothing yet. Let’s play again. I stand up to dance. I remember my Chinese teacher who made us do jumping jacks while counting to eight in unison. That’s what I remember, always eight, infinity: 一 二 三 四 五 六 七 八 She also told us that we had to be friends with our Chinese characters, spend time with them, talk to them, love them. Only then would they love us back, be there for us when we might need them instead of hiding in the silence. I begin a series of jumping jacks and they morph quickly, by number three, into something else all together. I shake my fists, I stretch my arms, I pull at the air above me. It seems that I am here now, I have fallen, I have entered. “Will I see you on the other side?”
I can no longer remember the precise distinction between the uncertainty principle and the observer principle, but one way or another, I've started to detect a feedback loop involving the Year in Reading series and the reading life it purports to document. When I dashed off my first entry, in 2005 (can that be right?), it was purely in the spirit of a report. But by 2012, even in January, February, and March, I found myself picking up a given book and asking: Is this a contender for the series? Is there any chance this is going to be the best thing I read this year? And if not, back onto the shelves it went. As a consequence, of the 50-odd books I finished this year, at least half ended up being terrific. And the arbitrary cap I set for myself annually (Okay, I'm going to stick to writing about eight books. Fine, a dozen. Fifteen.) has proven harder than ever to enforce. I haven't bothered to count the number of titles below, because, frankly, I just don't want to know how far over my own limit I am. Let me just say, by way of apology, that this was a really, really good year in reading. Probably my favorite thing I read was part one of Karl Ove Knausgaard's My Struggle -- which bodes well, because five more volumes are on their way into English. Knausgaard's been described as a Nordic Proust, and that more or less captures the book's scope and its candid thefts from the author's own life. It's not a perfect comparison, of course; the suburban Norway where Knausgaard came of age in the '80s can't touch the Faubourg St.-Germain for social complexity, nor is Knausgaard's prose -- even in Don Bartlett's lucid translation -- as refined as Proust's. But both authors, in vivisecting their own consciousness, alter the reader's. A key word in My Struggle is "presence," and after reading a few pages of Knausgaard's descriptions of snow and soap, corpses and copses, you look up and find your own world pressing its presence urgently upon you, a messenger with an envelope you'll never quite manage to unseal. But then, it's hard to give the laurels to Knausgaard, because this was also the year I read László Krasznahorkai's The Melancholy of Resistance and Clarice Lispector's Near to the Wild Heart. I'd started the former several times over the years, only to put it down again. (I blame the absence of paragraph breaks.) But I finished it this summer over four long nights, preparing to interview the author, and found it to be one of the great novels of the last quarter-century -- like a MittelEuropean Moby-Dick. Near to the Wild Heart, meanwhile, is a Portuguese Mrs. Dalloway, as written by Peter Handke. I'm still not exactly sure what all happens to Lispector's semi-feral heroine, but the writing is just exquisite. It kills me that Lispector was in her early 20s when she wrote this...and that it took me so long to discover her. She's one of those writers who changes dramatically from book to book, but I look forward to reading everything of hers I can get my hands on. If you want to give her a try, start with this Modernist masterpiece. Speaking of Modernist masterpieces...the Microscripts of Robert Walser are now out in paperback. I'm crazy about Walser's early novel Jakob von Gunten, but have struggled with his short stories (many of which would today be called "short shorts"). All those quicksilver shifts of tone and intellect, compressed into the small space of a paragraph or two; all those discrete paragraphs, jam-packed together in a 4 x 8 inch book like roommates in a railroad apartment. The gorgeous new edition of the Microscripts, by contrast, surrounds each text with white space, and pairs it with a facsimile of its original, which somehow gives Walser's sentences room to breathe...and to beguile. I was similarly entranced by Andrey Bely's 1916 opus Petersburg back in the winter. I always read something Russian when it's snowing, and I picked this up thinking to polish it off in a couple of weeks. Instead, it took me a couple of months. Bely's symbolist prose, in many respects, is probably untranslatable, and his atmospherics are so relentless that the plot keeps disappearing behind them. But somehow, that comes to seem like the book's whole point: to distill and bottle the phantasmagoric atmosphere of its titular city. Another classic I loved this year was William Faulkner's Sanctuary. Critics tend to treat this one as a disreputable entry in the Yoknapatawpha oeuvre...a liquored-up uncle trying to crash a party already full of liquored-up uncles. But one of the book's supreme pleasures is seeing Faulkner turn his mature method (and he never wrote better than he did in 1929, '30, '31) to the kind of luridly pulpy material that would later surround him in Hollywood. Temple Drake, the kidnapped and forcibly debauched coed at the heart of the novel, is no one's idea of a feminist icon. But she's a flesh-and-blood character, and when she quakes in terror, we do, too. ...And is it too early to start filing Roberto Bolaño under "classics?" The well of posthumous Bolaño fiction has finally, I gather, run dry, and I expected to resent late trickles like The Secret of Evil. Instead, I found myself totally delighted, as ever, by this writer's sui generis sensibility. A 15-page synopsis of a zombie movie, or of a dream about a zombie movie? Yes, please -- provided Bolaño's doing the dreaming. This was a good year for new fiction, too. I was really taken with Ben Fountain's Billy Lynn's Halftime Walk, not least because it's about damn time somebody wrote a novel about the Iraq War. Kevin Powers and David Abrams would soon join Fountain on the G.W.O.T. bookshelf. Unlike them, though, Fountain has never served in the armed forces and so it's an act of ethical daring for him to imagine himself into the head of Specialist Billy Lynn, the book's hero. Equally ballsy, I think, is the book's formal dare: with one exception, it's written in a relentlessly forward-moving present tense. I usually find this sort of thing to be a cop-out, as if the writer couldn't be bothered to find a form other than Transcribed Screenplay, but Fountain treats realtime as a challenge, rather than an excuse. And he pulls it off. In short, he's one of our best and bravest writers. So is Zadie Smith. Critics seemed to chafe at the avant-garde ambitions of her new novel, NW. But I'm not sure those ambitions would have registered as such, had her essay, "Two Paths for the Novel," much ballyhooed in 2008, not seemed to presage an avant-garde turn. It's equally easy to make the case for NW as a novel of psychological realism. Its formal experimentation is light, easy to follow, and really pretty old-school (see: Mallarmé, Joyce). More unsettling, and more sneakily experimental, is the book's approach to character. Smith's protagonists, Leah, Natalie, and Felix, are incomplete, metamorphic, works in progress (as is their author). And it freaks them out. The book's temperament, then, is anxious, pained, repressed - an obverse to the ebullience of White Teeth. But that doesn't mean it's not a step forward. I also got around to some older contemporary lit this year. Marilynne Robinson's Gilead had been on my list since our Best of the Millennium project, and I now understand why so many people voted for it. The explicitly religious subject matter -- the novel comprises the letters of an elderly priest -- may put some readers off, but Robinson's eloquent embrace of faith doesn't banish doubt and mystery; it foregrounds them. Or as her narrator puts it: I have wandered to the limits of my understanding any number of times, out into that desolation, that Horeb, that Kansas, and I’ve scared myself, too, a good many times, leaving all landmarks behind me, or so it seemed. And it has been among the true pleasures of my life. Salvation is nowhere to be found in Slow Fade, Rudolph Wurlitzer's early-80s novel of the movie business. Neither, come to think of it, is pleasure...unless it's the pleasure of Wurlitzer's bone-clean prose. But Slow Fade struck me nonetheless as a great introduction to this neglected writer. And speaking of neglected: what ever happened to Mark Costello? Okay, fine, there are at least two Mark Costellos; I mean the one who was David Foster Wallace's college roommate. His secret service sendup, Big If, was nominated for a National Book Award in 2002, and though it isn't exactly a complete novel -- it's missing an ending, and rarely even descends into scene-- Costello's one of the funniest and brightest turners of phrase this side of...well, this side of Wallace. His long riff on the novel's eponymous video game is like an existentialist parable rewritten by George Saunders, and is on its own worth the price of admission. I want a new Costello novel, and I want it now. But real art takes as long as it takes, and half the time we're not ready to recognize it when it comes. That's one of the lessons of the best work of nonfiction I read this year, Lawrence Weschler's Seeing is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees, a biography of the artist Robert Irwin. I've read a lot of Weschler, but this book, his first, may be his best. And whether your particular field of endeavor is painting or writing or delivering the mail, Irwin's story will teach you to see it in a new way. On the journalism side, I was also vastly impressed by Dave Cullen's Columbine, notwithstanding his misinformed blurb for the Anthony Shadid book ("If Marquez [sic] had explored nonfiction..." Um...). Here, the attraction's not so much the writing but the reporting, the way Cullen extends journalistic objectivity to both victims and killers. The back half of the book feels like a long, vivid nightmare, but one returns to sanity with the same feeling Weschler and Irwin keep urging on us: the wonder that there is anything at all. I'd also recommend Michael Gorra's Portrait of a Novel, about Henry James. Like Janet Malcolm's little books on Chekhov and Gertrude Stein, it's an approachable blend of biography, criticism, and travelogue. Its charms will be less considerable, and its insights less penetrating, to anyone who hasn't read Portrait of a Lady, to which Gorra's book is keyed. But for readers looking to spend more time with the Master, or just to see what the fuss is about, Gorra's book is the equivalent of a good undergraduate seminar. And you know who else is a good critic? Jonathan Lethem. While his novels get much of the attention, Lethem's been steadily carving out a niche for himself as a polymorphous culture freak. His 2011 collection The Ecstasy of Influence doesn't spare us his squibs and blog posts (and commentary on those squibs and blog posts), and for that reason I was prepared to hate it. Weirdly, though, it works, adding up to a warts-and-all portrait of the artist. And if you like your essays more polished, check out the long James Brown profile two-thirds of the way through. Finally, a confession: I did something crazy this year. I blew half of a freelancing check on the complete, seven-volume edition of William T. Vollmann's 3,000 page essay on violence, Rising Up and Rising Down. (What can I say? It was either that or diapers for my children.) I remain deeply conflicted about my fascination with Vollmann. I know there's an obvious case to be made that he's not a good writer. I also think he might be a great one. To my surprise, given its length, RURD is one of his more carefully crafted books. In its learned monomania, it reminds me of Burton's Anatomy of Melancholy. To a contemporary audience, its style of argumentation may feel bizarre; I keep thinking of an archaeologist sitting at a table, sweeping a pile of sand from one hand to the other, waiting for artifacts to emerge in the middle. But when Vollmann arrives, after many divagations, at a point, you don't feel like you understand; you feel like you've lived it. (For this reason, I cannot imagine the 700-page abridged version making any sense at all.) And if Violence seems like too broad a subject, consider this: it's a head-fake. The essay's really about Everything. Or so it seems to me at present; I'm only two volumes in. RURD is destined, probably, to join The Book of Disquiet and The Arcades Project and The Making of Americans as one of those books I read and read and never finish. But I'm grateful to the weird pressure of A Year in Reading for giving me the impetus to start. More from A Year in Reading 2012 Don't miss: A Year in Reading 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005 The good stuff: The Millions' Notable articles The motherlode: The Millions' Books and Reviews Like what you see? Learn about 5 insanely easy ways to Support The Millions, and follow The Millions on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr.
We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we’ve been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you’ve been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you’ll find our Millions Top Ten list for June. This Month Last Month Title On List 1. 5. Train Dreams 5 months 2. 6. Bring Up the Bodies 2 months 3. 7. How to Sharpen Pencils 3 months 4. 8. New American Haggadah 4 months 5. 9. The Swerve: How the World Became Modern 3 months 6. - The Patrick Melrose Novels 1 month 7. 10. Visual Storytelling: Inspiring a New Visual Language 3 months 8. - A Naked Singularity 1 month 9. - Binocular Vision 2 months 10. - The Flame Alphabet 1 month Four books -- John Jeremiah Sullivan's Pulphead, Fernando Pessoa's The Book of Disquiet, Nicholas Carr's The Shallows, and Lewis Hyde's The Gift -- decamp for our Hall of Fame this month. The former three were brought to the attention of our readers during our Year in Reading series in December, while the latter anchored a holiday gift guide for writers. With all those books departing, our new number one is Denis Johnson's Pulitzer finalist Train Dreams. It also makes room for three newcomers on the list and a returning title, Edith Pearlman's Binocular Vision. The debuts are Edward St Aubyn’s The Patrick Melrose Novels (reviewed here in February), A Naked Singularity by Sergio De La Pava (profiled by Garth Hallberg) and The Flame Alphabet by Ben Marcus (we reviewed the book in early January and interviewed Marcus later in the month). Near Misses: Leaving the Atocha Station, Open City, The Great Frustration, 11/22/63, and Gods Without Men. See Also: Last month's list.
We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we’ve been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you’ve been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you’ll find our Millions Top Ten list for May. This Month Last Month Title On List 1. 1. Pulphead 6 months 2. 3. The Book of Disquiet 6 months 3. 2. The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains 6 months 4. 4. The Gift: Creativity and the Artist in the Modern World 6 months 5. 6. Train Dreams 4 months 6. - Bring Up the Bodies 1 month 7. 10. How to Sharpen Pencils 2 months 8. 5. New American Haggadah 3 months 9. 7. The Swerve: How the World Became Modern 2 months 10. 9. Visual Storytelling: Inspiring a New Visual Language 2 months Our one debut this month is one of the most anticipated books of the year: Hilary Mantel's Bring Up the Bodies, her sequel to Millions July 2010 Hall of Famer Wolf Hall. The arrival of the Thomas Cromwell juggernaut bumps Binocular Vision from our list. David Rees' How to Sharpen Pencils is the other big mover on our list, jumping three spots. Our in depth, hilarious interview with Rees from last month is a must read. Next month should be very interesting as we'll see the top four books on our list move to the Hall of Fame, opening four new spots. Near Misses: Binocular Vision, The Patrick Melrose Novels: Never Mind, Bad News, Some Hope, and Mother's Milk, Leaving the Atocha Station, The Great Frustration, and 11/22/63. See Also: Last month's list.
We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we’ve been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you’ve been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you’ll find our Millions Top Ten list for April. This Month Last Month Title On List 1. 2. Pulphead 5 months 2. 4. The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains 5 months 3. 5. The Book of Disquiet 5 months 4. 6. The Gift: Creativity and the Artist in the Modern World 5 months 5. 9. New American Haggadah 2 months 6. 10. Train Dreams 3 months 7. - The Swerve: How the World Became Modern 1 month 8. - Binocular Vision 1 month 9. - Visual Storytelling: Inspiring a New Visual Language 1 month 10. - How to Sharpen Pencils 1 month Last fall, the book world was abuzz with three new novels, the long-awaited books 1Q84 by Haruki Murakami and The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides, as well as Chad Harbach's highly touted debut The Art of Fielding. Meanwhile, Millions favorite Helen DeWitt was emerging from a long, frustrating hiatus with Lightning Rods. Now all four are graduating to our Hall of Fame after long runs on our list. This means we have a new number one: John Jermiah Sullivan's collection of essays Pulphead, which was discussed in glowing terms by our staffer Bill Morris in January. The graduates also open up room for four new books on our list. A Pulitzer win has propelled Stephen Greenblatt's The Swerve: How the World Became Modern into our Top Ten (fiction finalist Train Dreams by Denis Johnson has already been on our list for a few months). Edith Pearlman's Binocular Vision is another recent award winner making our list for the first time. Don't miss our interview with her from last month. In January, author Reif Larsen penned an engrossing exploration of the infographic for us. The essay has remained popular, and a book he focused on, Visual Storytelling: Inspiring a New Visual Language, has now landed on our Top Ten. And then in the final spot is David Rees' pencil sharpening manual How to Sharpen Pencils: A Practical and Theoretical Treatise on the Artisanal Craft of Pencil Sharpening. Our funny, probing interview with Rees from last month is a must read. Near Misses: Leaving the Atocha Station, The Patrick Melrose Novels: Never Mind, Bad News, Some Hope, and Mother's Milk, 11/22/63, The Sense of an Ending, and The Great Frustration. See Also: Last month's list.
We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we’ve been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you’ve been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you’ll find our Millions Top Ten list for March. This Month Last Month Title On List 1. 2. 1Q84 6 months 2. 3. Pulphead 4 months 3. 4. The Marriage Plot 6 months 4. 6. The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains 4 months 5. 7. The Book of Disquiet 4 months 6. 5. The Gift: Creativity and the Artist in the Modern World 4 months 7. 8. The Art of Fielding 6 months 8. 9. Lightning Rods 6 months 9. - New American Haggadah 1 month 10. 10. Train Dreams 2 months Ann Patchett's Kindle Single The Getaway Car: A Practical Memoir About Writing and Life has graduated to our Hall of Fame, and Haruki Murakami's 1Q84 slides back into the top spot. Debuting on our list is Jonathan Safran Foer and Nathan Englander's New American Haggadah, just in time for Passover. We reviewed the new take on an ancient religous text last month. Next month should see a lot of movement on our list as we're likely to see four books graduate to the Hall of Fame, meaning we'll see four new titles debut. Near Misses: Visual Storytelling: Inspiring a New Visual Language, The Sense of an Ending, Leaving the Atocha Station, The Great Frustration, and The Patrick Melrose Novels: Never Mind, Bad News, Some Hope, and Mother's Milk. See Also: Last month's list.
We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we’ve been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you’ve been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you’ll find our Millions Top Ten list for February. This Month Last Month Title On List 1. 2. The Getaway Car: A Practical Memoir About Writing and Life 6 months 2. 1. 1Q84 5 months 3. 4. Pulphead 3 months 4. 3. The Marriage Plot 5 months 5. 8. The Gift: Creativity and the Artist in the Modern World 3 months 6. 6. The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains 3 months 7. 9. The Book of Disquiet 3 months 8. 5. The Art of Fielding 5 months 9. 10. Lightning Rods 5 months 10. - Train Dreams 1 month Ann Patchett's Kindle Single The Getaway Car: A Practical Memoir About Writing and Life lands atop our list, unseating Haruki Murakami's 1Q84, and another Kindle Single, Tom Rachman's short-story ebook The Bathtub Spy, graduates to our Hall of Fame. (Rachman's book The Imperfectionists is already a Hall of Famer.) Debuting on our list is Denis Johnson's novella Train Dreams, which won mentions from Adam Ross, David Bezmozgis, and Dan Kois in 2011's Year in Reading series. John Jeremiah Sullivan's Pulphead was a big mover again this month, and Lewis Hyde's The Gift: Creativity and the Artist in the Modern World also jumped a few spots. Near Misses: The Great Frustration, The Sense of an Ending, Visual Storytelling: Inspiring a New Visual Language, 11/22/63, and The Sisters Brothers. See Also: Last month's list.
We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we’ve been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you’ve been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you’ll find our Millions Top Ten list for January. This Month Last Month Title On List 1. 1. 1Q84 4 months 2. 2. The Getaway Car: A Practical Memoir About Writing and Life 5 months 3. 3. The Marriage Plot 4 months 4. 6. Pulphead 2 months 5. 4. The Art of Fielding 4 months 6. 8. The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains 2 months 7. 5. The Bathtub Spy 6 months 8. 7. The Gift: Creativity and the Artist in the Modern World 2 months 9. 10. The Book of Disquiet 2 months 10. 9. Lightning Rods 4 months It was a quieter month for our list, with no new titles breaking in and 1Q84 still enthroned at #1. The big movers on the list were John Jeremiah Sullivan's Pulphead, which received a glowing write-up from our staffer Bill, and Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows, which Jonathan Safran Foer called a book that changed his life. With an array of hotly anticipated titles coming in February, we'll see if any newcomers can break in next time around. Near Misses: Train Dreams, The Sense of an Ending, Leaves of Grass, The Great Frustration, and A Moment in the Sun. See Also: Last month's list.
We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we’ve been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you’ve been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you’ll find our Millions Top Ten list for December. This Month Last Month Title On List 1. 1. 1Q84 3 months 2. 3. The Getaway Car: A Practical Memoir About Writing and Life 4 months 3. 2. The Marriage Plot 3 months 4. 5. The Art of Fielding 4 months 5. 4. The Bathtub Spy 5 months 6. - Pulphead 1 month 7. - The Gift: Creativity and the Artist in the Modern World 1 month 8. - The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains 1 month 9. 6. Lightning Rods 4 months 10. - The Book of Disquiet 1 month While the top of our final list for 2011 included the same familiar names and 1Q84 still enthroned at #1, our year-end coverage helped push four eclictic new titles onto the lower half of our list. John Jeremiah Sullivan's Pulphead was one of the most talked about books of 2011 and our own Bill and Garth offered glowing comments on the book in our Year in Reading. Jonathan Safran Foer touted Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows as a book that changed his life. (Our own Emily Mandel also wrote a fascinating essay inspired by the book over a year ago.) Colum McCann said of Fernando Pessoa’s Book of Disquiet, "It was like opening Joyce’s back door and finding another genius there in the garden." Finally, Hannah Gerson came up with "12 Holiday Gifts That Writers Will Actually Use" but only one of them was a book, The Gift by Lewis Hyde. With all these new books showing up on our list, four titles got knocked off: Stephen Greenblatt's The Swerve: How the World Became Modern, Julian Barnes' The Sense of an Ending, John Sayles's A Moment in the Sun, and Whitman's Leaves of Grass Other Near Misses: Train Dreams and The Great Frustration See Also: Last month's list.
“There are so many books. Always so many. They collide in my mind.” - Colum McCann Another Year in Reading is behind us, and I speak for all of us at The Millions when I sincerely thank everyone who wrote, shared, and read our articles. It’s a bit daunting to let strangers into our private reading worlds, but it’s also quite rewarding. There is always the temptation to dive into a new book just after finishing another. There are, as Colum McCann says above, just “so many books” we’ve yet to read. However it’s also true that reflection can deepen appreciation: your reading timeline becomes contextualized, and its connections develop like a filmstrip in your mind. Our series, in the end, is all about such reflection. We also recognize that it’s becoming easier than ever to rely on algorithms and lists for one’s book recommendations – and while there are some treasures to be found through such means, there is nothing quite like the warmth of an actual human being’s testimony to vouchsafe your next reading choice. We hope that these articles have turned you on to new writers – authors of books selected by others, or authors of the articles themselves. With 72 participants naming 214 books, it’s safe to say this has been our biggest and most high profile Year in Reading yet. Our participants included the current Poet Laureate, a longtime candidate for the Nobel Prize for Literature, the reigning winners of the IMPAC and Pulitzer Prizes, two authors of books named The New York Times’ 10 Best of 2011, a recent inductee to the Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame, and more Pushcart winners than I care to count. A number of authors wrote their own Year in Reading articles as well as books chosen later on in the series. This honor roll consists of McCann, Jennifer Egan, Daniel Orozco, David Vann, Siddhartha Deb, and Geoff Dyer. Yet in spite of these credentials – impressive as they are – I thought it would be fun to note some statistics, and to award some further superlatives based upon the articles written for this series. (Note that all research is highly unscientific.) By the numbers: of the 214 books named, 139 were fiction, 68 were nonfiction, 5 were poetry, and 2 were graphic novels. The average length of the books chosen was 338 pages, and the average publication year was 1994. The oldest book selected was Moby-Dick, the longest was Bleak House, and the shortest was Buckdancer’s Choice. If you’re a fan of our Post-40 Bloomers series, you’ll appreciate the fact that the average age of each book’s author, at the time their book was originally published, was 47.53 years old. Most of the books were from the United States and the UK, but many were from Ireland, Canada, France, the Russian Federation, Hungary, and Germany. Six of the seven continents were represented, and these books were published by presses ranging from the New York Review of Books to New Directions to Fantagraphics to Random House. (I won’t release the name of which house published the highest number of selections because I don’t want war to break out in New York City.) Some favorites from the series, based on feedback from readers and links, comments, and other stats, included McCann on The Book of Disquiet, Jonathan Safran Foer on The Shallows, Ben Marcus on Nothing, Michael Schaub on The Great Frustration, and Egan on Butterfly’s Child. Three books tied for the most popular selection this year: Denis Johnson’s Train Dreams (selected by Dan Kois, David Bezmozgis, and Adam Ross), Edouard Levé’s Suicide (selected by Scott Esposito, Mark O’Connell, and Dennis Cooper), and Haruki Murakami’s 1Q84 (selected by Charles Baxter, Kevin Hartnett, and Garth Risk Hallberg). Seven more books tied for second-most popular: Phillip Connors’ Fire Season (selected by Chad Harbach and yours truly), Sheila Heti's How Should a Person Be? (selected by Harbach and Emily Keeler), Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From the Goon Squad (selected by Brooke Hauser and A.N. Devers), Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove (selected by Hauser and Rosecrans Baldwin), Jon Ronson’s The Psychopath Test (selected by Schaub and Chris Baio), Tamar Adler's An Everlasting Meal (selected by Hauser and Rachel Syme) and Helen DeWitt’s Lightning Rods (selected by Scott and Garth). Still I am compelled to award a couple of half-serious superlatives to close this thing out: The “Gashlycrumb Tinies” Award for Saddest Selection of Books goes to Emma Straub for her tear-soaked article. “Mr. Consistent” is an Award I’d like to bestow upon Brad Listi, who exhausted the Sarah Palin canon only to then go on to exhaust the David Markson one. “Most Indecisive” belongs to Brooke Hauser and her 15 selections, while “Most Topical” goes to Michael Schaub because 90% of his list published in 2011. The Award for Coolest Byline undoubtedly goes to Duff McKagan, but the Award for Coolest Backstory (as well as my unending jealousy) goes to Benjamin Hale. Finally, the Award for Most Valuable Participant goes to you, dear reader, for allowing us to continue our series and for helping it grow with each passing January. Until next year, happy reading. All best, The Millions staff P.S. If you’re curious as to how we put the series together, please do check out Electric Literature’s interview with our founder, C. Max Magee. The series, the articles, and the site itself would not be possible without him.
There are so many books. Always so many. They collide in my mind. Odd little decorations from the course of the year. But one of the most extraordinary experiences was reading an essay by Rabih Alameddine on Fernando Pessoa's Book of Disquiet. Rabih's essay was so gorgeous that I immediately felt envious. What was this book? Where had it been hiding all my life? I bought an old copy over the Internet. It arrived, wrapped in brown paper. A Penguin Classics edition. The book stunned me with its beauty. Rabih was correct, of course: it was one of the great books of our times. I had not read anything quite like it before. It was like opening Joyce's back door and finding another genius there in the garden. The Book of Disquiet. To try to describe it would be to diminish it. But it will meet you some day and bring you down its alleyways of Lisbon .... 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 Like what you see? Learn about 5 insanely easy ways to Support The Millions, The Millions on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr.