Sometime around February, both somewhat crassly and in complete seriousness, I took to describing the still-newish 2019 as The Year of the Great Unclenching. The frenetic anxiety that had possessed me from working in a news cycle for the past four years that I can adequately only describe as a brain clenching its buttocks had finally begun to dissipate, leaving my mental faculties free and wanting to consume whole books again. (Apologies to all friends and strangers who had to endure me recount this self-mythologization at parties with an overenthusiastic use of the phrase “relaxed mental sphincters.”).
Since I lived in Harlem but went to lift weights three times a week at a gym in a Brooklyn neighborhood, for reasons I will explain another time—an hour-long commute each way transformed into the most peaceful uninterrupted reading time of the kind people (including me) moan about not having. At 9 p.m. on a weeknight aboard a nearly-empty 2 Train, nobody jostles you, nobody peeks over your shoulder, you don’t have to choose between balancing the book in one hand and clutching the pole with another, leaving me free to smirk to myself midway through Barbara Trapido’s Brother of the More Famous Jack—the only other book that has come close to my everlasting love for Hanif Kureishi’s The Buddha of Suburbia, in the genre misguidedly given the insufferably twee name “coming-of-age” novel.
I have neither memory nor recollection of who told me about this writer or how I discovered her, but as the barest hint of my trapezius muscles began to emerge over the course of more Harlem to Crown Heights commutes, I inhaled Trapido’s entire body of work. Sex & Stravinksy, Noah’s Ark, The Travelling Hornplayer, Frankie & Stankie, Juggling and Temples of Delight—captivated by the way she manages to write the most charming books that take such perverse delight in the casual everyday cruelties that we, the members of the profoundly boring middle class, inflict on those (wives, husbands, offspring, mothers, fathers) when our indoctrinated veneer of fondness towards them wears thin, lobbing small grenades of destruction that do lasting damage, even as we cook dinner, fret over bills, and drink antacids to aid digestion. All I read this year were books by women who write in barbs so sharp their sentences seem capable of leaving nicks in the corners of your thumbnail. You carry their words with the same awareness that you would the hanging flap of skin leftover from a paper cut—aware always, but still unable to stop obsessively picking at it. I laughed when Muriel Spark rendered the do-nothing Writer Man character in Loitering with Intent with an evisceration so succinct it made me avert my eyes in second-hand embarrassment. I took in Barbara Pym’s Excellent Women, which is un-showy and more restrained, but no less ruthless in its intelligence. I reread The Portable Veblen, which I’d first read back in 2016 when it came out and had momentarily forgotten what a strange, inventive and just plain weird book this was. I found far too many parallels of my own with Lolly of Sylvia Townsend Warner’s Lolly Willowes and Edith of Anita Brookner’s Hotel du Lac. I choked with a certain crazed laughter while reading Halle Butler’s The New Me, in horrified familiarity at the scenes where the character endures the meaningless tedium of working full-time temp jobs. I read and reread Rona Jaffe’s The Best of Everything so many times over the summer that the brand new copy split apart at the spine. I put it back together with Gorilla Tape and read it again. I hope all these women will forgive me for comparing their writing to a hangnail. I love hangnails; they are my constant companion and keep me company when I am anxious, which is frequently.
Their writing did the same in a way.
When I think back on my reading life to date, there are maybe a couple dozen writers who stand out from the rest as the true friends of my mind: Woolf, Bellow, Proust, Dostoevsky…And the weird thing is that none of these—well, none except the poets—were love at first sight. I remember staring blankly at the first page of DeLillo’s Mao II at 15, when I still believed I was a poet myself. I remember struggling with the Constance Garnett version of The Brothers Karamazov by our apartment-complex pool the summer after freshman year of college, before switching translations and falling into it utterly. And I remember (this is embarrassing) tripping over the sprung rhythms of the opening of Augie March and being like, this is what all the fuss is about?
The experience of suddenly gaining new ears for an author is one I can perhaps best compare to the effortless French fluency I sometimes achieve in dreams. Or to the way Douglas Adams described the workings of the Babelfish in A Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. One minute, I’m bumbling along with furrowed brow, nodding in feigned comprehension, Oui, bien sûr, the beach is which way again?; the next minute, the barriers melt and I’m immersed in a clear sea.
And this is the experience I had this year with the late Canadian genius Mavis Gallant—which is odd, because I already liked Mavis Gallant. In fact, I recommended her anthology Paris Stories in this space a couple years back. Some time in June, frustrated with much of the new fiction I was reading, I picked up the companion volume Varieties of Exile, confident that I at least knew what I was getting: a certain standard of craftsmanship. What I found instead was rapture. In the wry, daring, tender, and ruthless prose of stories like “The Chosen Husband” and “The Concert Party,” I was suddenly hearing secret harmonies. How many such stories had Gallant published in her lifetime? I decided I had to read them all, post-haste.
I turned to her Collected Stories, an 850-page feast recently reissued by Everyman’s Library. Starting with the pieces published in The New Yorker around what seemed her annus mirabilis, 1979, I read my way forward and backward with growing astonishment: “In The Tunnel,” “The Pegnitz Junction,” “An Alien Flower,” “Potter”… the stories only got deeper, richer, funnier, sadder. I limited myself to one a day, so that each would have time to steep in the back of my brain; soon, my daily hour with Mavis Gallant became the thing I most looked forward to. From “The Remission,” possibly the greatest of Gallant’s stories:
“When it became clear that Alec Webb was far more ill than anyone had cared to tell him, he tore up his English life and came down to die on the Riviera. The time was early in the reign of the new Elizabeth, and people were still doing this—migrating with no other purpose than the hope of a merciful sky.”
Collected Stories was the best book I read all year—one of the best works of fiction I’ve ever read—and as the remaining pages dwindled, I began to feel the sadness of impending loss; never again, barring amnesia, would I get to read these stories for the first time. Happily, Collected Stories turns out to be a wild misnomer; by July, I’d found an equal number of Gallant’s masterpieces lurking in unconscionably obscure volumes like My Heart Is Broken, Home Truths, and The Other Paris; on microfilm at the NYPL; and in the anthology of “uncollected work” The Cost of Living. Nearing now the true end of the Gallant oeuvre, I felt as if certain engines of perception had been restored to their factory settings; even books plucked from the New Release shelf at the bookstore carried a Gallant-like charge of clarity and depth. Or perhaps, afraid to break the spell, I began choosing them more carefully.
I found myself loving, for example, Max Porter’s short novel Lanny, with its tender English domesticity and bursts of wild, magic-realist collage. And Amit Chaudhuri’s Friend of My Youth, an easygoing autofiction of Mumbai life that stealthily opens into something deeper (like all of Chaudhuri, really). And Sergio De La Pava’s Lost Empress, the daft and incendiary follow-up to A Naked Singularity, centering on mass incarceration, Joni Mitchell, and an off-brand football team called the Paterson Pork. I loved, at length and for the record, Ben Lerner’s third novel, The Topeka School. And much of Ocean Vuong’s debut, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous.
Cautiously, I turned this polyamorousess, or mania, or whatever it was, to some older fiction I’d been meaning to start or finish for a while now. The problems with Martin Amis’s Time’s Arrow are well-documented, and probably inevitable—the whole thing is told backward, for God’s sake—but in my state of generalized receptivity, I found myself marveling more at its eclipsed discoveries (that guilt is the corollary not of sin but of fear; that suicide is impossible in reverse). One could certainly point out problems with Hanif Kureishi’s The Buddha of Suburbia, too—it’s no one’s idea of tightly constructed—but I found the narrator’s lusty openness to happenstance so vital and persuasive and charming that I went ahead and read The Black Album, too. Charmed isn’t quite the right word for what I felt about Karl Ove Knausgaard’s A Time for Everything; its longeurs put even My Struggle to shame. But having set it aside a couple years ago, I now pushed on to one of the strangest and most indelible conclusions in literature.
It is only by comparison with Knausgaard that Vivian Gornick’s intense memoir Fierce Attachments can be called a palate-cleanser—it will haunt you, too. But this is a flawless piece of writing, born of a kind of intoxicating New York astringency I associate with Renata Adler, Elizabeth Hardwick, and Paula Fox. (What a pleasure it would be to teach a class on these four writers.)
I should say, in the interest of accuracy, that all was not totally hopeless before my Summer of Mavis Gallant, though the best books I read in the first part of 2019 were mostly classics, consecrated by time, or satellite works orbiting around them. Some years ago, a publisher from the Netherlands gave me a list of her country’s greatest novelists, and this spring I finally got aroud to reading Max Havelaar by Multatuli (a.k.a. Eduard Douwes Dekker). I had thought of it as a proto-muckracking work about the evils of the 19th-century coffee trade—the thing it’s famous for—but Multatuli is also an extraordinary writer and literary architect, hurling thunderbolts of satirical and polyphonic prose, as much Sergio De La Pava as Ida B. Wells. Encouraged, I decided to try W.F. Hermans as well, mainly because his just-translated war novella An Untouched House, from 1951, was shorter than Gerhard Reve’s The Evenings. I was pleasantly surprised to find Hermans’s writing beautiful and devastating as well as misanthropically furious—the thing he’s famous for.
And then, wrapping up an introduction to Henrik Pontoppidan’s Lucky Per, I picked up Niels Lhyne, by Pontoppidan’s fellow Dane and rough contemporary Jens Peter Jacobsen. The fact that I’d been barely aware of it seems insane to me now, both because Niels Lhyne forced a reassessment of my maps and calendars of literary modernism and because of the insane beauty of Jacobsen’s sentences (in Tiina Nunally’s exquisite translation.) Wanting to know more, I read the young critic Morton Høi Jensen’s 2017 book on Jacobsen, A Difficult Death, and found it a wonderful tutorial, in the vein of Janet Malcolm’s book on Chekhov. This reminded me in turn of how much I love the genre of popular criticism, and sent me toward David Bellos’s The Novel of the Century: The Extraordinary Adventure of Les Misérables—far more worth your time than the borderline-unwatchable BBC remake of Les Mis with Phil Collins’s daughter and McNulty from The Wire.
This was a wonderful year for new criticism as well (shout-out to James Wood’s essay on Pontoppidan, and to Patricia Lockwood’s incandescent rereading of Updike in the LRB). I’ll admit to having lumped Jia Tolentino’s New Yorker pieces in with some of the more fleeting hot takes that seem to have crept into that magazine via its website. But in August, as I traveled up to Maine for vacation, a friend urged me to give Tolentino’s Trick Mirror a chance, starting with the essay on ecstasy. I’m grateful for the advice. Tolentino’s decision to write nine original pieces for this book, rather than recycling from the magazine, is a sign of courageous seriousness—and serious courage. Moreover, Tolentino is a gifted memoirist and a brilliant reader, and her take on our digitally damaged culture, however warmly felt, is also about as definitive as we’re likely to get at present. I found a similar balance of thinking and feeling in the criticism of the poet Hanif Abdurraqib, which I’d started reading a few months earlier. There are some gems tucked into the gallimaufry They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us, but his book-length essay on A Tribe Called Quest, Go Ahead in the Rain, seems to push the whole genre of music writing forward.
Of the narrative nonfiction I read this year, only Say Nothing, Patrick Radden Keefe’s tremendous account of Ireland’s Troubles, counts as new, strictly speaking. But the lowercase troubles depicted in Jill Leovy’s Ghettoside, Matthew Desmond’s Evicted, and Katherine Boo’s Behind the Beautiful Forevers remain urgent news, and I’d recommend any of these without reservation, not least for the effortless way they smuggle analysis into their storytelling. I’d also put in a plug for Jeff Chang’s Can’t Stop Won’t Stop, neither narrative nor criticism, exactly, but all in all the Lipstick Traces of hip-hop.
Back to Mavis Gallant, though, through whom my whole year in reading flowed. I finished the last unread piece of her writing, the novel Green Water, Green Sky, on the first day of that vacation in Maine. For an encore, I went with a friend to the nearby house of Marguerite Yourcenar, whom Gallant had praised in her wonderful essay “Limpid Pessimist.” Yourcenar’s Memoirs of Hadrian had been stalled out for years now in the lower hundreds of my to-read list, but the experience of walking through her study, browsing her bookshelves, and of Gallant’s beneficent influence on my reading more generally, meant that I would give it another look. I found it as advertised: a singular masterpiece, an almost spooky inhabitation of the Roman imagination.
And then I turned to The Bluest Eye, in memory of Toni Morrison, one of the very first friends of my mind, whose writing had in a very real sense, made a novelist of me. It had been years since I’d read her, and I felt a little trepidation. How real were they, really, these ecstasies and deep sympathies? Was it possible they were just figments of my own imagination, like my ability to speak flawless French? Or of someone else’s, like the Babelfish? Or something in between?
“Nuns go by as quiet as lust, and drunken men and sober eyes sing in the lobby of the Greek hotel. Rosemary Villanucci, our next-door fried who lives above her father’s café, sits in a 1939 Buck eating bread and butter.”
Nope. I can’t begin to understand, much less explain, what these lines do to me, but as we turn the collective page into 2020, I feel certain it doesn’t get any realer than that.
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.
Award-winning polyglot Turkish author Elif Şafak has been accused of plagiarism by a translator in Turkey, where her newest novel Iskender was released on August 1. Shortly after publication Iskender, which had already sold upwards of 200,000 copies, was called out by a blogger for its resemblance to the Turkish translation of Zadie Smith’s White Teeth. The comparisons move from the general to the specific, with one vignette in particular offered as the most damning evidence of perfidy. Shortly thereafter, Smith’s Turkish translator, Mefkure Bayatlı, doubled down with a full accusation of plagiarism.
The kerfuffle, which is front-page news in Turkey, does not of yet seem to have surfaced in the American literary blogosphere, despite the relative renown of Şafak in this country. Şafak, who writes in both Turkish and English, has enjoyed huge popular success globally for, among other novels, The Bastard of Istanbul, The Saint of Incipient Insanities, The Flea Palace, and The Forty Rules of Love. She was the winner of the Union of Turkish Writers prize for The Gaze and she is a frequent presence on the Turkish best-seller list. She has done the professorial/lecture circuit in the U.S., appeared on NPR, and written for the New York Times, The Guardian, and The Wall Street Journal, among other publications. In May, Şafak shared a stage with Jonathan Franzen and Salman Rushdie as a PEN presenter. In short, she’s a big deal (and in Turkey, a huge deal).
For those out of the loop, here’s a brief timeline of the scandal (NB: highly unprofessional translations ahead):
August 1: Iskender hits shelves. A novel about a bi-cultural immigrant youth living in London.
August 3: Culture blog Fikir Mahsulleri Ofisi (very loosely, “Department of Ideas”) reviews an advance copy of Iskender in a post titled “Elif Şafak’s new novel is a little too ‘Familiar.’” The review details the many ways in which the characters and themes of Iskender resemble those of White Teeth: Muslim immigrants living in London, inter-generational conflict, and so on. The blog makes an extended comparison of thematic and character similarities, before delivering the parting shot — two versions of one moment spent daydreaming in front of a basement apartment window. The money quotes are here (note that passage was taken from the Turkish translation of White Teeth, so what follows is the Turkish translation back into English, with many apologies to Zadie Smith and translator Bayatlı for liberties taken).
Bowden’s living room was situated below the road and there were bars in the windows so that the view was partially obscured. Generally Clara would see feet, tires, exhaust pipes and umbrellas being shaken. These instantaneous images revealed a lot; a lively imagination could conjure many poignant stories from a bit of worn lace, a patched sock, a bag that had seen better days swinging low to the ground. (White Teeth, p. 30, Everest Publishing)
He would sit cross-legged on the living room rug and gape at the windows near the ceiling. Outside there was frenzied leg traffic flowing right and left. Pedestrians going to work, returning from shopping, going on walks… It was one of their favorite games to watch the feet going to and fro and try to guess at their lives — it was a three-person game: Esma, Iskender and Pembe. Let’s say they saw a shining pair of stilettos walking with nimble, rapid steps, their heels clicking. “She’s probably going to meet her fiance,” Pembe would say, conjuring up a story. Iskender was good at this game. He would see a worn, dirty pair of moccasins and start explaining how the shoes’ owner had been out of work for months and was going to rob the bank on the corner.” (Iskender, p. 135, Doğan)
August 4: Burak Kara, writing for Vatan newspaper, prints a statement from Bayatlı, the Turkish translator of White Teeth:
A coincidence of this magnitude isn’t possible. Şafak, using Zadie’s book as a template, made the family Turkish and wrote a book. She simplified the topic. I especially note the similarity of the window story. Ten parallel stories like this can be written, but the window story isn’t even a parallel. This is called plagiarism. It’s like an adaptation. It surpasses inspiration…
August 7: Şafak, one of her editors, and the General Director of Doğan Kitap Publishing respond in the Sunday print edition of Milliyet newspaper (web version here). The editor defends the book, noting that White Teeth bears resemblance to Hanif Kureishi’s The Buddha of Suburbia (published before) and Monica Ali’s Brick Lane (published after). “There are a number of similarities between Smith and Ali’s books,” stated Şafak’s editor. “Doctoral theses have even been written on this topic comparing the two novels. And yet no one says that Monica Ali plagiarized.”
The General Director, too, addresses the natural and inevitable similarities between works of immigrant literature dealing with similar themes: “These are probably not the only two novels for whom the basement apartment represents a state of destitution.”
And Şafak hits back:
Enough already! Iskender, which I wrote in England, which my English publishers read line by line with great pleasure, which my English agency represents with great pleasure, will be published back-to-back in England and the U.S. in 2012 by Penguin and Viking, two of the best publishing houses in the world. Given all this, I don’t take seriously the accusations levied by a handful of people whose intention is to wear me down. As with all of my books, my hard work and imagination is evident in this novel. I’m fed up, we’re fed up with the reckless attacks against people who do different work. My reader knows me. Iskender is my eleventh book, my eighth novel. This is what I say to those dealing in slander, gossip, and delusional behavior.
August 8: Fikir Mahsulleri Ofisi, the blog that published the original review, addresses its old and new readers, reminding them that their original statement was simply that the book “might show influence to the extent that opens the way for an argument of plagiarism,” and that the real accusations were made by Smith’s translator. Like any hapless blogger who starts a shitstorm, they are gratified and bewildered by the new readership, alarmed by the repercussions, and disgusted by some of the comments. It’s as if internet shitstorms are the same in every language!
August 10: Fikir Mahsulleri Ofisi publishes a timeline for new readers, a response to Safak’s response, and an epic polemic about the state of criticism in Turkey.
There was value in bringing this to light: plagiarism is serious to the last degree, and not a claim that can be made lightly. But it is not an insult or an attack. As far comments like [columnist] Deniz Ülke Arıboğan’s tweet, “to accuse an author of plagiarism is no different than to curse them” — well, to curse someone is ill-mannered, it’s hitting below the belt. One refrains from responding to curses. As for plagiarism, when it is held up with concrete information, it is a serious claim that must be responded to with a cool head. It’s a criticism. Since this isn’t something that is well-known in Turkey let me spell it out again so that it’s well understood: CRITICISM.
Moving to the political, the post goes onto criticize people who use Şafak’s 2006 appearance in court for denigrating the Turkish state (Article 301) as a reason to excuse or discount the plagiarism controversy:
Just as Elif Shafak’s liberty to write novels in the face of conservative laws, the liberty of others to criticize her novels must be held sacred, too. What to do about one warning left by a commenter who calls him/herself Elif Şafak: “If you don’t erase this, criminal prosecution can be started against you?”
Without having read both Iskender and the Turkish translation of White Teeth, it’s impossible to weigh in on the validity of the claims, but it’ll be interesting to see what comes of this. We would love to hear from readers who have some perspective.