Two books by two important French writers appear simultaneously in the English language. Furthermore, both volumes take up French history of the last 50 years, with a focus on growing self-awareness of the working class in France. Annie Ernaux is a prominent French writer, known for her memoirs A Man’s Place (1984) and A Woman’s Story, works dedicated to her parents. Didier Eribon is a professor of sociology at the University of Amiens, who has published noted works on Michel Foucault and Pierre Bourdieu, as well as Insult and the Making of the Gay Self. The theme of this last book is taken up again in the latest publication. What is more, Eribon is an admirer of Ernaux’s work, and often cites it in the present volume.
Walter Benjamin has written about Dostoyevsky’s novel The Idiot that it resembles a massive crater. The same metaphor illuminates Annie Ernaux’s memoir The Years, and on an even more explicit level. This work, which was received with great praise in France 10 years ago, and now again on the occasion of its English translation (Les Années [Paris: Gallimard, 2008]; translated 2017, Seven Stories Press, now with Fitzcarraldo Editions), attempts to narrate the very flowing away of time by taking a very specific attitude towards words, events, objects, and people. In this sense, Ernaux’s book puts itself before a metaphysical task. For this reason, there is a consistency to Ernaux’s arresting decision to write in the third person plural “we”—fittingly described by Lauren Elkin in The Guardian as a “choral we” or—and in the singular “she.” Elkin’s observation is well put because it brings out how this entire narrative is like a chorus, repeated after each verse of a song or lyric, providing its pivotal momentum. Accordingly, The Years develops a personal story to attain a general or collective significance: It becomes the story of France of the last 50 years.
In contrast, Eribon goes exactly the other way. Eribon, an established sociologist, uses his academic vocabulary, the language of abstraction and generalization, to bring out his highly personal story. Returning to Reims (Retour à Reims [Paris: Fayard, 2009]; translated 2013, Semiotext(e), now with Allen Lane) relates Eribon’s personal journey from his childhood in Reims to his uncertain steps onto an academic career. On this journey, he feels constantly the pull of two opposed sides of his identity: his working-class background and his homosexuality. Eribon himself notes how he has been able to make an intellectual concern of homosexuality, writing successful books like Insult and the Making of the Gay Self precisely by rejecting and even denying his class origins. One coming out coincides with another closeting. Compared to the metaphysical aspiration of The Years, Returning to Reims can be read as an introduction to sociology, to the understanding of truths that envelop us whole.
The Years’s special
quality, its resemblance to Benjamin’s crater, asserts itself from the
All the images will disappear: the woman who squatted to urinate in broad daylight, behind the shack that served coffee at the edge of the ruins in Yvetot, who stood, skirts lifted, to pull up her underwear and then returned to the café.
A little bit further, this preamble pauses, to commence another series: “Thousands of words, the ones used to name things, faces, acts and feelings, to put the world in order, make the heart beat and the sex grow moist, will suddenly be nullified.” This preamble of the novel consists of a series of about 50 short aphorisms, all of whom, some stronger than others, display a way of folding away in themselves. None of these aphorisms is dressed up as a full sentence. They are not capitalized, and there is no full stop at the end of any of them but the very last. In that sense, they are less than statements. They mean to prepare the reader for what comes next, the story of the particular way in which time flowed over or through France these past 70 years.
The difficult, aphoristic folding away of statements is achieved by presenting the component on which the aphorism opens as married to something heard in a very minor key, or very singular, as to shut it down or sidetrack it and show how its potency runs out. Here is another one:
…on an outdoor stage, the woman shut into a box pierced all the way through by men with silver spears—and emerging alive because it was a magic trick, called The Martyrdom of a Woman.
In this case, the formula works so well because it connects the history of patriarchy and its abuses to a dramatic title, but only through a provincial scene of entertainment, of folklore, even, and thus by way of an exception on this history. It heightens the horror of patriarchy precisely because this formulation—like the others—does not attain the rank of statement: It enacts the very suppression it describes.
Ernaux soon departs from this aphoristic style. She then goes on to describe the experience of her generation: the poverty of rural Normandy after World War II, the hatred of Germany, and the way in which time, for the children, was experienced as received, as a given thing. Time and history were present in the stories told by the generation of the parents, and invariably, these stories would involve the occupation. Indeed, this part of the book articulates time as some kind of sediment, something washed up on the shore. Time has as memory a physical dimension to it that is absolutely evident to the children: “Memory was transmitted not only through the stories but through the ways of walking, sitting, talking, laughing, eating, hailing someone, grabbing hold of objects.”
The children simply take this dimension of time for granted.
Yet over time they discover their capacity to answer to it, even if they remain
for the most part silent witnesses. In fact, Ernaux reports that only as
teenagers they become gradually become a partner in conversation to their
parents and other grown-ups:
In the mid-1950s, at family meals, teenagers remained at the table. They listened but did not speak, smiled politely at the jokes that were not funny, the approving comments whose objects was their physical development, the salty innuendos designed to make them blush, and answered only the cautious questions about their schoolwork.
Gradually, Ernaux’s generation awakens to the life of time, its characteristic of moving along with human beings—although never in sync: There is always a discord between the pace of history and the generation that occupies it, and The Years relates the experience of this dissonance.
Compared to Eribon’s Returning to Reims, there is the strong similarity of people discovering at a young age that their education has already exceeded that of their parents, or indeed their entire milieu. This presents them with a crisis of authority: Within the household, they cannot make knowledge-based claims that would undermine the position of the parents, the father most of all. As Ernaux’s parents were shopkeepers at a time when almost everyone was feeling the aftermath of the War, her experience of the class struggle appears relatively mild. The lower middle classes, and a context of general scarcity, help to mediate her awareness of class of identity. Her character, “she” or “we” is aware of being in school together with the children of doctors and schoolteachers, but is always able to reconcile, or at least make sense of these conflicting worlds. Eribon, however, describes his background as extremely poor. There exists an absolute separation between his, and the middle class. This separation can only be traversed by pretending to be someone he is not. In turn, for Ernaux’s generation, and more importantly for women the main predicament of being a young adult is the inexistence of contraception in the 1950s in France.
The same class distinction and difference for their respective generations mediates access entry to intellectual debates, books, and representatives. For Ernaux, these come as a matter of course: studying to be a teacher, listening to the radio news, and generally making her way into the world means for her a pre-existing acquaintance with de Beauvoir and Sartre, and the rest of French intelligentsia that follow their trail. When les nouveaux philosophes appear on the scene in the early 1970s, they arouse only a mild and fleeting interest:
Unlike Sartre, who was said to be senile and still refused to go on TV, or de Beauvoir with her rapid-fire diction, they were young. They challenged our consciences in words that we could understand and reassured us of our intelligence. The spectacle of their moral indignation was entertaining, though it was not clear what they were trying to do, other than discourage people from voting for the Union of the Left.
It is interesting that in Ernaux’s account, philosophy—but also art and often cinema—is talked about as an integral element of the general French culture (there is scattering of namedropping throughout The Years, indicating an easy and self-evident familiarity with high culture). Indeed, Ernaux skips those thinkers whose rigor is much more respected in academic circles today, like Foucault and Derrida—exactly thinkers of the caliber that Eribon ends up close to. For instance, Eribon’s intellectual debt to Sartre, in terms of his coming of age as a philosopher, is massive, as he Sartre is a lasting presence when he describes his formative years. Nonetheless, he is keen to point out, in his biography on Foucault, how young philosophers of the latter’s generation admired Merleau-Ponty even more because Merleau-Ponty “was more academic, more rigorous, less ‘in vogue’, and, above all, took more risks in his attempts to open philosophy up to contributions from the human sciences.”
It seems that Eribon shares Foucault’s attitude, that philosophy or academia is always in need of another kind of legitimacy, as it, from Eribon’s perspective, cannot be a part of a culture as a whole. Indeed, for Eribon, all of this, the intelligentsia, was a strange land from the outset, to be taken only by an utmost effort of will and determination, and not without a measure of self-denial and the pretence of being something other than he was. The very activity of reading Marx or Sartre was revolutionary and borderline insubordinate for Eribon as an adolescent. This break constitutes his experience of embarking on an academic life, leaving his native milieu behind him and explains his affinity for Foucault taking leave of Sartre at the end of the 1940s: a thinker with the setup of Eribon is never easy with his environment and must always take the avant-garde.
Ernaux’s character, navigating the
predicaments of sexual autonomy, family life and its disruption, and financial
independence, appears simply to lap up the world of philosophy. Her social
mobility is constrained by other factors or by exceedingly more factors at the
same time, not permitting of one or two significant ones. For Eribon, being gay
and being working class together set up the north and south for his entire life
This process, for Eribon, is far from
completed. In fact, he notes how this book is yet another step in his journey
of removing himself from his origins:
I’m painfully aware that the way I have arranged the writing of this book assumes—both about me and my readers—that we are socially distant from the circumstances and from the people who still live the kinds of lives I am attempting to describe and to reconstruct. I am equally aware how improbable it is that any of those people could end up reading these pages. When people write about the working class world, which they rarely do, it is most often because they have left it behind. This happens even if they write with the goal of exposing and critiquing the very status of social illegitimacy to which these people are relegated over and over again, because in writing they take a necessary critical distance because they have left it behind, and with it comes the position of a judge or an evaluator.
Annie Ernaux was born in 1940, Didier Eribon in 1953. Both spend their upbringing in the North of France. Notwithstanding the considerable difficulties for women of her generation, Ernaux relates a vastly more open social reality from the one that appears in Eribon’s pages. That same difference, however, coincides with their slightly differing social backgrounds, from the lower middle classes and the working classes. Furthermore, to highlight this difference does a disservice to The Years, which is not about class and sociology. It is about time, and how sexuality can take its pulse.
“Near the end of her book, Ernaux presents her methodology and her instrument: “the palimpsest sensation.” In these final pages of The Years, the protagonist—“she,” “we”—describes a relationship with a younger lover. Although the relationship appears exclusively sexual, it is to the protagonist least of all about sex. Instead, sex becomes an antenna for reconnecting to a lifetime of experiences. It is because she does not belong to this man’s generation, his life and his world, that during their rendezvous she is displaced onto the span of her life as a whole. Her body in these moments attains the capacity of feeling sensations from decades ago, as it records once more the sensations of her life, that become manifest this time as their duplicate: the palimpsest sensation.
There are very moving pages, particularly in the description of the closeness of the lover as recording her former bodily closeness to her mother. This kind of reconciliation is only hinted at in Eribon’s book, in its consistent but implicit reverence for his mother, who he describes as a very intelligent person, and someone who craved education but was always in a position too disadvantaged to get it. This woman gets a couple of great lines, for example about her son’s prejudice towards his own class, as well as the final say when it appears that Eribon has arrived in the world of academia.
For better and worse, books are how I learn things. Kissing, for instance. Though I wouldn’t get the opportunity to implement this knowledge for another solid decade (or, uh, more) I referred, with hope, to the Junior Girl Scout handbook. Year after year, I read to understand, knowing that it’s a futile exercise—limitless in both the exhausting and reassuring ways. Exhaustingly, reassuringly, there is always more to know. 2018 was another Year in Reading to know more—embarrassingly literally at times. The books I read fell into a few main categories:
Literal self-help! In 2018 I did things I’d never done before and read books about them. In January I started a business; I read Starting a Business for Dummies. I read Let My People Go Surfing by Yvon Chouinard, the founder of Patagonia, about letting your employees go surfing (the self-help realm is all about the subtitles, and Chouinard’s is: The Education of a Reluctant Businessman). A book that legit changed my life was one I found on a shelf in an Airbnb: David Allen’s Getting Things Done, about Getting Things Done®! (Subtitle: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity.) I thought I was sort of spending too much time on my phone so I read a book called How to Break Up With Your Phone and it more or less worked. In June we adopted a kitten from the SPCA. I read Total Cat Mojo (The Ultimate Guide to Life with Your Cat) by Jackson Galaxy, in which he recommends blinking slowly at your cat to express love. I read a book called Adventure Cats: Living Nine Lives to the Fullest, about taking cats on hikes. Indeed, I remain as cool as I was at age 9.
In the category of fiction that is haunting/beautiful/devastating and wholly engrossing: Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi. An American Marriage by Tayari Jones. Exit West by Mohsin Hamid. Tommy Orange’s perfectly calibrated There There. In a single sitting, I read The Incendiaries by R.O. Kwon—an otherworldly, wonderful thing.
In the category of opening doors to other worlds, a la Exit West: I read memoirs that put me squarely in other people’s bodies: This Will Be My Undoing by Morgan Jerkins, Heart Berries by Terese Marie Mailhot, All You Can Ever Know by Nicole Chung, and The Fact of a Body by Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich—all memoirs from distinct, memorable, assured voices.
In the category of laughing/crying perfection and exactly my cup of tea: I teared up (for sad and happy reasons!) at Less by Andrew Sean Greer, Kudos by Rachel Cusk, and The Idiot by Elif Batuman. These were books that made me laugh and broke my heart—a combo I love wholeheartedly.
In the category of the female experience made scarily visceral: You Are Having a Good Time by Amie Barrodale, a book of too-real, resonant short stories. And The Power by Naomi Alderman and Sheila Heti’s Motherhood were books that articulated my questions exactly, in perfect timing.
Maybe I read also to get mad? In the category of books I read and got mad at: The Corrections and Freedom (I know, I know, but I enjoyed Purity, and honestly, truly was open to enjoying these too). There were a few books I should have put aside and read anyway, due to my I-always-have-to-finish-a-book-even-though-I-know-life-is-short rule. And I know it makes me a chicken to not name names, but listen, I just won’t. One was an acclaimed thing that made me actually throw it across the room because of its overly, well, florid descriptions of flora. The other was by an exceedingly acclaimed author that included incredibly racist descriptions of all its Asian characters (and when I googled the author’s name with “racist against Asians” the search yielded nothing, meaning that even though this was the year of Crazy Rich Asians, it remains a year in which casual racism against Asians is still okay).
Speaking of being tired, tired, tired of the way things are, I read texts like manuals. In the category of books I read to make things different, make things better: Emergent Strategy by Adrienne Maree Brown. bell hooks’s Feminism Is for Everybody. Audre Lorde’s Sister Outsider. Roxane Gay’s Bad Feminist. We Should All Be Feminists by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. These are books that both galvanized me and made me hopeful—that pointed me in the right direction.
Most recently, in the category of nonfiction that describes the invisible and real, I’ve read: Ai Jin Poo’s The Age of Dignity, about the ways in which we’re woefully underprepared to take care of our aging in America. And Ed Yong’s I Contain Multitudes, about the invisible world of microbes. What I learn is this: Counter to everything we’ve been taught about evolution, change doesn’t necessarily happen glacially, especially when bacteria are involved. There’s fluidity to how bacteria and their hosts interact: exchanging information, changing constitutions, and swiftly adapting. A woodrat living in the desert can eat poisonous creosote plants because they have bacteria that live in their guts that can detoxify it. If you put the same bacteria into the guts of other animals, they can start eating poisonous creosote, too! And this change doesn’t take hundreds of years, it just happens! There is a metaphor somewhere in there about reading, maybe.
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This year I read not one, but two books about or by famous Russian male writers’ wives. If there are more of them, which I am certain there are, I would like to read those, too. The first one was Véra: Mrs. Vladimir Nabokov, and I found it via an interview with the writer, Stacy Schiff, in the Paris Review. She was discussing how difficult it was to write a book about someone who worked so hard to excise herself from a narrative—the narrative of her husband’s career, of his genius—and about the absence at the heart of this book about a woman who did not want to be found. Absence, presence, women—those are the words that set things off in my brain. Right away I ordered the book at my local bookstore, which was also at the time my place of employment, and although I do not usually read biographies I read this one and loved every page of it.
Then some other article somewhere sent me to Nadezdha Mandelstam’s brilliant, chilling, disturbing, insightful memoir, Hope Against Hope, and I wondered if I should devote my life to the study of books by famous Russian writers’ wives, because it was the best thing I’d read in a long long time. Nadezdha Mandelstam was married to Russian Jewish poet Osip Mandelstam, who died, under circumstances that were never revealed to Nadezdha, in a forced labor camp sometime in 1938. The account of life in Soviet Russia alone is devastating. But what struck me most about the book was the way Mandelstam watched and understood the people around her, her deep attention to the things that happen to individuals under totalitarian rule. One friend, she writes, “told me I should not allow anyone into the house unless I had known him all my life, to which I always replied that even such friends might have changed into something different. This is how we lived, and this is why we are not the same as other people.” One question this book begins to answer is: What does fear do, to individuals and to a society?
There are some connections to our own present moment that perhaps I do not need to spell out.
I also read some really good poetry this year: Morgan Parker’s fantastic Other People’s Comfort Keeps Me Up at Night; Tommy Pico’s ecstatic, hilarous Junk; Danez Smith’s ravenous [insert] boy; Natalie Eilbert’s Indictus, which I’ve been thinking about nonstop ever since (and talking about to just about everyone I know). I bought José Olivarez’s Citizen Illegal at his reading in Madison, Wisconsin, because of my boyfriend; I read Elif Batuman’s The Idiot (not poetry) and was embarrassed by how much I loved and related to it. (One underlined quote, which I then copied out into my notebook like a true adolescent: “I get that you despise convention, but you shouldn’t let it get to the point that you’re incapable of saying, ‘Fine, thanks,’ just because it isn’t an original, brilliant utterance.”)
And I read a pocket-sized selected edition of W.H. Auden all winter and into the spring, for comfort and for elucidation, in times of fear and uncertainty and devastating politics and flights cancelled due to Midwestern March snowstorms. Back in Brooklyn, at a strange moment of in-between-ness, I stumped up and down the perimeter of mostly frozen Prospect Park and recited Auden to myself. These two stanzas about birds and flowers, from “Their Lonely Betters,” particularly got to me:
Not one of them was capable of lying,There was not one which knew that it was dyingOr could have with a rhythm or a rhymeAssumed responsibility for time.Let them leave language to their lonely bettersWho count some days and long for certain letters;We, too, make noises when we laugh or weep:Words are for those with promises to keep.
In June of 2016, I started a podcast with my friend Jesse called Fan’s Notes, about our two favorite topics of discussion: books and basketball. To date, we’ve recorded 58 episodes, a rate of about one book every two weeks. The project has been somewhat time-consuming, and extremely unlucrative, but it has been hugely rewarding in terms of reading. A quick scan through our list of published episodes in 2018 (the project comes in handy here as a kind of diary of my year’s reading) reminds me of many new favorites: Elif Batuman’s The Idiot and Lucia Berlin’s A Manual for Cleaning Women among them.
As a fairly slow reader, the podcast has benefited—dictated, really—my reading list, I think to the benefit of my writing. Not just in terms of regularly discussing literature in a somewhat structured (if beer-accompanied) format, but also in terms of simply venturing a little beyond the confines of my usual taste. I would not otherwise, probably, have sat down and read straight through two collections of Borges, would have been content with my passing familiarity with the greatest hits: “The Aleph,” “The Circular Ruins,” “The Garden of Forking Paths.” Like most people, as much I intend to read new things, the attention-draining demands of life always make it easy to stick with what I’m confident will bring a good return on my reading time. That Patrick Melrose collection on the bookshelf, for example, is a constant familiar lure and pleasurable threat to experiencing novel novels.
Of all the excellent books the podcast introduced me to in 2018, none was more unexpected or exciting than Mary McCarthy’s The Company She Keeps. I’d been vaguely aware of McCarthy as someone in the 20th-century literary landscape, had heard of The Group. But I’d never read her, and I’d never heard of this novel, her first, published in 1942. That this book was published 77 years ago, going on a century, is truly hard to believe—it is one of the most modern novels I’ve read in a long time, more modern than most modern novels.
The book’s political concerns are shockingly timely, somehow prefiguring #MeToo and DSA 80 years ahead of schedule. The Company She Keeps follows its protagonist, Margaret Sargent, a young bohemian Trotskyite, as she destroys her marriage, finds odd jobs to make ends meet, engages in a series of love affairs, and navigates the ’30s-era New York communist scene. Margaret’s sexual and political agency feel bracing, radical even by today’s standards. She is accorded the traditionally male prerogative to destroy and rebuild her life as she sees fit—to make, at times, foolish and selfish and self-destructive choices—without apology or justification.
The novel’s form, too, is unusual and daring. It comprises six long, sometimes novella-length chapters, stories all published independently in outlets like The Partisan Review. Despite being anchored by Margaret’s consciousness and concerns, the POV moves from third person to first to second. In one story, Margaret only appears halfway through and functions as the antagonist. McCarthy employs every possible vantage point to probe Margaret’s character—her principled bravery, her fears and anxieties, her generosity and snobbish prejudices—in a kind of dialectic analysis mirroring the Marxist and Freudian thought that dominated both the author and characters’ intellectual circles. As soon as Margaret believes a proposition about herself or the world to be true, something else proves it false, and the two truths must be synthesized in order to allow her to edge forward. Margaret’s mental landscape—and this is where the real action of the book takes place—is like an impossibly large mansion of locked rooms. Unlocking one door, she only finds herself trapped in another.
The book posits self-awareness as a kind of comic hell. In the memorable conclusion to “Portrait of the Intellectual as a Yale Man,” the main character, Jim Barnett, a smug leftist (and avatar of white male privilege decades before that was a phrase in circulation) ruefully considers his extramarital fling with Margaret:
What did he regret, he asked himself. If he had to do it over again, he would make the same decision. What he yearned for, perhaps, was the possibility of a decision, the instant of a choice, when a man stands at a crossroads and knows he is free. Still, even that had been illusory. He had never been free, but until he had tried to love the girl, he had not known he was bound. It was self-knowledge she had taught him. She had shown him the cage of his own his nature. He had accommodated himself to it, but he could never forgive her. Through her, he had lost his primeval innocence, and he would hate her forever, as Adam hates Eve.
Once the door to honest introspection is cracked, it cannot be closed again, can only be flung wider and wider as each confounding truth barges through. It turns out a little self-perception goes a long way, and a lot goes a little.
The comic, brutal irony of McCarthy’s narrative regard—toward Margaret and the motley cast of secondary characters—is what struck me initially as most bracingly modern about the novel. As I read on, however, I began to question this proposition. I’m not sure, in fact, how much patience modern readers would have for a narrative voice this unsparing, or a protagonist as flawed and vexing as Margaret Sargent. She is not, in the horrible modern formulation, relatable. She is not nice, and neither, to its credit, is The Company She Keeps. This is a book that pulls no punches—about art, politics, psychology, and human nature. This is a book that tells the truth because there’s something at stake, politically and personally, something that would be lost by any intellectual fudging or false comfort. In a period of such rank political and cultural dishonesty, we need books like this—now more than ever, I want to cornily say, though probably this has always been the case. There have probably never been enough books like this.
2018 was the year I outgrew my bookshelves. Between my boyfriend and myself, we already had a lot of books but this year our shelves began to burst at the seams. Between reviewing gigs, landing on more publicity lists, and my propensity for buying books, there is just not enough space. Stacks of books have taken up residence on our headboard, next to my desk, on the floor next to the bed, on any flat surface we can find. I was not shocked by the swelling shelves as this was my first full year of reviewing books professionally. Sometimes it still feels weird to say my job (well, one of them) is reviewing books. A blessing with a rather wonderful downside: being assigned reviews means I have less time to read what I want when I want. Despite this, I was able to read some truly incredible books this year.
I kicked off 2018 with Carmen Maria Machado’s Her Body and Other Parties, which I read poolside on vacation. The stark difference between the collection’s tone and my physical setting was not lost on me. Everything that needs to be said about the book has already been said. All I’ll add is that it’s one of the best bodies of work (and debuts) I’ve ever read. Upon returning to the snowy tri-state area, I spent the seemingly never-ending winter making my way through a mishmash of books: Rebekah Frumkin’s The Comedown, an ambitious multi-generational epic from a writer to watch; Tayari Jones’ honest and searing An American Marriage; John Lewis’s March trilogy, which left me in tears; Shonda Rhimes’ Year of Yes (the smart, funny, and Rhimes-narrated audiobook is highly recommended); and Leïla Slimani’s claustrophobic and thrilling The Perfect Nanny.
In the summer, I escaped to the Catskills nearly every other weekend—sans wifi, cell service, and other people—and read. Whether it was on the porch, next to the wood burning stove, or over a cheese plate, I was curled up with a book. Said books included Leni Zumas’ Red Clocks, which was both gripping and timely; Rachel Cusk’s Outline, a sparse triumph ; Samantha Hunt’s genre-bending, achingly-poetic The Seas; Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich’s heartbreakingly empathetic The Fact of a Body; Lisa Halliday’s Asymmetry, which I devoured in nearly one sitting; and Elif Batuman’s The Idiot, a beautiful novel about banality.
Fall fell away in a flurry of pages and a stretch of indelible books. It started with R. O. Kwon’s The Incendiaries, a slim, luminous novel where every sentence felt like a carefully-crafted poem. I mean: “punch-stained red cups split underfoot, opening into plastic petals.” Nearly a week’s worth of commuting was spent savoring Alexander Chee’s How to Write an Autobiographical Novel. A few essays made me openly weep on public transportation and I can think of no greater compliment. Essays gave way to post-apocalyptic debut with Ling Ma’s Severance—perhaps my favorite book published in 2018. Ma renders the peril and monotony at the end of the world with humor and heart. After passing its empty place on the library shelves for months, I finally borrowed André Aciman’s Call Me By Your Name. It left me raw and with a desire to flee to Italy. Reading the novel felt like pressing on a bruise: painful and sweet. Sidelined with a cold, I waded then dove head first into Kamila Shamsie’s Home Fire, a modern retelling of Antigone. And after avoiding it for far too long (and for no good reason), I picked up Lauren Groff’s Fates and Furies, which surpassed all expectations. In the midst of a depressive fog, the novel unlocked something inside me and buoyed me into December.
Looking back, I realize I mostly read women writers—not a conscious choice but a choice nonetheless. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that one of my best reading years in memory was slanted in such a way, and I suspect next year will look similar. Looking forward, I expect to read all the books I missed this year (there were many), and as 2019 books find their way into my mailbox, I am going to find new homes for some of our misfit books. Maybe even regain a flat surface or two, if we’re lucky.
Why did America put Franz Kafka in such a good mood? As his friend Max Brod remembered, Kafka worked on his ultimately unfinished novel about the U.S. with “unending delight,” a noteworthy state for someone much more likely to be brooding about the big three (guilt, your father, corporeality) or writing pained letters to a distant love. In Amerika’s most upbeat passages, Kafka seems to take pleasure in romanticizing about the “New World,” imagining the U.S. as a beacon of equality and a decent hard day’s work. In this sense, the novel echoes plenty of earlier literature on America.
But more surprisingly, Amerika anticipates a newer form of Romanticism, one that is worth considering closely, because it has since become a major presence in fiction about the U.S. Briefly put, the New World got Kafka excited about the potential benefits—really, the transformational power—of being stupid: the magic of being out of touch.
This was something more than anti-intellectualism. This was pro-ignorance. Consider Amerika’s final chapter, in which the protagonist, a young immigrant named Karl, has reunited with friends and found a job with the “Nature Theatre of Oklahoma” after a long series of frustrating losses and wrong turns. According to Brod, this was Kafka’s favorite part of the book, a section he loved to read aloud. And although he never finished writing the chapter, he apparently would hint (with a big smile on his face) that “within this ‘almost limitless’ theatre his young hero was going to find again a profession, a stand-by, his freedom, even his old home and his parents, as if by some celestial witchery.” This was new territory for Kafka: magical thinking and happy endings.
But here’s what the happiness actually looks like: Karl and his friend Giacomo find themselves crammed into a train car on a long cross-country route. They become so giddy about the trip and the beautiful scenery they pass that they are completely oblivious to their immediate surroundings. The seats are so crowded they can barely move, and thick cigarette smoke makes it hard to breathe. Their cabinmates, who make fun of Karl’s and Giacomo’s naive excitement, pass the time by playing cards and grabbing and pinching their less-seasoned fellow travelers. Karl is stuck, in other words, in a low-paying and unpredictable job, in rough conditions, surrounded by people who get a kick out of harassing him. This trip is pretty clearly not going to be great. And the scene is able to suggest that Karl is rushing off to a blessed future only because he seems so dimly aware of what is actually taking place.
We’re familiar with the idea that ignorance is bliss, but, in the spirit of Amerika, the last century of fiction about the U.S. has flirted with the stronger notion that ignorance can heal. We will never learn exactly how Kafka’s dense traveler was going to reunite with family, friends, and home. But we now have a long list of novels that connect similar dots, turning states of density into moments of reunion and reparation.
My favorite example is Alberto Fuguet’s Las Peliculas de mi Vida, in which the 1992 Pauly Shore movie Encino Man becomes a symbol for finding love in America. The novel relates the life story of a disillusioned Chilean-American seismologist who is torn about returning to America after many years in Chile. When he finally decides to move to California to pursue a love interest he met at the beginning of the book—she’s an American immigration attorney, as if to hammer home the idea that the journey is national as well as personal—he writes her one last note: “I’d like and am afraid and hope” that we will meet again, he says, “P.S. I did see Encino Man … I thought it was pretty bad and—nevertheless—enjoyed it.” His hopes and fears speak to the possibility that love in the U.S. could change his life. His appreciation of what is arguably the most ridiculous movie of the ’90s shows that he’s ready.
Or Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah, in which the Nigerian protagonist, Ifemelu, falls in love for a while with Curt, a “relentlessly upbeat” American who “believed in good omens and positive thoughts and happy endings to films.” As Ifemelu explains, Curt is “admirable and repulsive in a way that only an American of his kind could be.” She eventually moves on. But her temporary attraction to Curt and the dense Americanism he represents helps the story eventually land where it does: “The best thing about America,” she claims near the end of the novel, “is that it gives you space. I like that you buy into the dream, it’s a lie but you buy into it and that’s all that matters.” Who knows what would have happened if Ifemelu had not found, albeit temporarily, this “space” of obliviousness?
This embracing of the forcefully unintellectual appears again in the conclusion of Michael Chabon’s The Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, another novel about an immigrant’s journey to America. After a twisting and traumatic plot, Holocaust survivor Joe Kavalier has ended up living for several years as a recluse in Manhattan, unable to connect with his friends and family. And he returns to the fold by making a scene. In a stunt announced anonymously in the newspaper, he swings from the Empire State Building in an iridescent gold suit and mask.
The stunt, channeling the comic books Joe loves (and creates), makes no sense. But it works. When Joe’s estranged wife and cousin later ask why, he responds, “I guess this was the point … for me to come back. To end up sitting here with you, on Long Island, in this house, eating some noodles.” Somehow, the act of thrilling onlookers in a golden bathing suit and boots has enabled the refugee to rejoin the family he might not otherwise have seen again. It seems we can’t stop imagining stupid entryways into American life.
More recently, the second-generation Turkish-American Elif Batuman has styled herself as an idiot in The Idiot, an autobiographical narrative of her college years. In an interview, she refers to “moments of what felt like, in retrospect, stupidity” as distinguishing her path through Harvard to a successful career as a journalist and novelist.
We could go on: In Don Delillo’s White Noise, the goofy experiences of familial love that only seem possible in grocery stores; or the concluding image in Delillo’s Underworld, a novel steeped in issues of immigration and race in America: a billboard for orange juice that might or might not radiate divine forgiveness and plenitude after a tragic death (“they stared stupidly at the juice …’Did it look like her?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘Are you sure?’ ‘I think so’”). Salman Rushdie’s American novels are more concerned with violent emotions that can’t be escaped (see: Fury), but he alludes to the healing powers of American unknowing when, in The Golden House, he has the narrator dream that he could be reunited with his son “and jump into Doc Brown’s DeLorean and fly back to the future and be free.”
I think this might be one of the last frontiers of Romanticism, informed by a stubborn unwillingness to give up on the idea that America is a place of new beginnings. Returns to childhood, the national volk, hedonism, intelligence: These have pretty clearly lost their punch. But ignorance, ironically enough, is a harder Romantic object to dismiss, because it’s the only mental state that can’t be accused of bad faith: It so obviously isn’t setting out to get anything done, so obviously isn’t part of a plan, how could it have an ulterior motive? Still, for perhaps obvious reasons, few literary or academic voices would admit to taking ignorance seriously. A notable exception is Avital Ronell, whose wide-ranging philosophical study, Stupidity, makes a case for its revolutionary potential. Ronell does not have much to say directly about American contexts, but at one point, referring to the blockbuster movie Forest Gump, she writes that “moral purity, American style, can be ensured only by radical ignorance.” This is, I think, the basic underlying hope that helps imagery of ignorance feel optimistic in fiction about the U.S. There’s something that feels desperate about all this fascination with American ignorance, especially at a time in which assaults against knowledge so powerfully shape our public culture—but Kafka’s brilliance was a form of desperation, too. And it will be interesting to see where the desperate Romanticism he foresaw ends up.
Image: Flickr/Rakkhi Samarasekera
The winner of the 2018 Women’s Prize for Fiction (formerly the Orange Prize and the Baileys Prize) will be announced on June 6. Since 1996, the award has recognized the best English-language novel by a woman published in the U.K. in the previous year, and it has steadily built a distinguished lineup of winners (including Marilynne Robinson, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Barbara Kingsolver, Ali Smith, and Lionel Shriver). Amongst these celebrated voices, several debut authors have found their careers kickstarted by the prize—it was largely responsible for putting Eimear McBride on the map, and Madeline Miller and Téa Obreht also won for their first novels.
So it’s appropriate that this year’s shortlist of six (whittled down from a longlist of 16) consists of three established and three debut authors (Elif Batuman, Imogen Hermes Gowar, and Jessie Greengrass). I hope this guide helps you find a couple books among them that speak to you.
The 2018 shortlist:
The Idiot by Elif Batuman
The Basics: A sedate series of vignettes following the daily life of Selin, a college freshman in the mid-1990s who questions the foundations of language, navigates the confusing new territory of love by email, and finds herself teaching English in a Hungarian village over the summer.
Key Quote: “I kept thinking about the uneven quality of time—the way it was almost always so empty, and then with no warning came a few days that felt so dense and alive and real that it seemed indisputable that that was what life was, that its real nature had finally been revealed. But then time passed and unthinkably grew dead again, and it turned out that that fullness had been an aberration and might never come back.”
Read if You Like: Campus novels, deadpan humor, or stories that capture the rhythms of everyday life.
My Take: This is a witty, compassionate look at how youth can trap people into being simultaneously smart and shallow, and Batuman’s observational humor perfectly captures the casual absurdity of simple interactions.
The Mermaid and Mrs. Hancock by Imogen Hermes Gowar
The Basics: Set in 1780s London, the novel opens with a merchant named Jonah Hancock as one of his captains returns with the news that he sold one of Hancock’s ships in exchange for what appears to be a small, mummified mermaid. To try to recoup his losses, Mr. Hancock begins selling tickets to the public, leading him to a fateful meeting with the vivacious Angelica Neal—a high-class courtesan looking for her next provider.
Key Quote: “He puts his face by hers, his nose grazing her ear and his lips just upon her neck, until each of their breaths slows. Thus they sleep and thus they wake. There ought to be little else said on the matter, for lovers are all the same, and only of interest to themselves, but on this count it is remarkable: Angelica Neal has not felt this way before. Or if she has, she has forgot.”
Read if You Like: Meticulously researched historical fiction, luscious and somewhat verbose prose, or tales with a tinge of magical realism.
My Take: Although a bit more superficial than the titles it’s being compared to (like The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry), this is a pacey romp that cleverly considers issues of gender, wealth, and class mobility.
Sight by Jessie Greengrass
The Basics: A compact novel that follows a British woman in her 20s as she grapples with major life events, including the death of her mother and the choice of whether or not to become a mother herself. Interwoven with her personal reflections are detours about historical figures who attempted to see into the human mind and body (through psychoanalysis, the discovery and use of X-ray waves, and early study of human anatomy).
Key Quote: “There are times when pregnancy seems like the narrowing down of options to a point, and still it is impossible to make oneself believe, quite, that there is no way out of it but this: a bed somewhere, a costing up of risks and this pain that tears you from yourself, your mind disbursed by it, your body made an exit wound.”
Read if You Like: Cerebral writing, insular first-person narration, or books that combine the academic and the personal.
My Take: One reader’s profundity is another’s pretension, and this often strayed into the latter for me. But the novel does offer some brilliant passages on family legacies, grief, and the philosophical ties between major historical events and our own intimate experiences.
When I Hit You by Meena Kandasamy
The Basics: A young Indian writer informs the reader that she has recently escaped from an oppressive, violent marriage, then rewinds to illustrate exactly how her husband mentally and physically abused her. Along the way, she confronts how Indian society abets victimizers while shaming victims, acknowledging that she herself believed this kind of thing would never happen to a woman like her.
Key Quote: “The suspicious, violent husband is a character, but already, just by being who he is, he is becoming the first semblance of a plot. It’s a plot that goes nowhere except in dizzying circles, and it’s a plot that remains tightly under his control. But, recently, I have begun to learn how to wrest it back. …I remind myself of the fundamental notion of what it means to be a writer. A writer is the one who controls the narrative.”
Read if You Like: Fiction with hints of memoir, mordant humor, or fragmented narratives.
My Take: This is a harrowing, fiercely intelligent account of one woman’s battles against both internal and external critics (and it’s my personal pick to win).
Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie
The Basics: When a British teenager named Parvaiz Pasha is recruited by ISIS, his sisters have opposing views on how to move forward—and that’s before their brother’s story gains international attention. Like its source material (the ancient Greek tragedy Antigone), this story poses the questions: How does the power of the individual compare to the power of the state? And what happens when their interests conflict?
Key Quote: “If you look at colonial laws you’ll see plenty of precedent for depriving people of their rights; the only difference is this time it’s applied to British citizens, and even that’s not as much of a change as you might think, because they’re rhetorically being made un-British. …Even when the word ‘British’ was used [for the 7/7 terrorists], it was always ‘British of Pakistani descent’ or ‘British Muslim’ or, my personal favorite, ‘British passport holders,’ always something interposed between their Britishness and terrorism.”
Read if You Like: Multifaceted explorations of identity, classic retellings, or a touch of melodrama.
My Take: Fast-paced and stirring, this novel builds to a phenomenal final section that will surprise even readers of Sophocles.
Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward
The Basics: When Leonie gets a call that her boyfriend, Michael, has been released from prison, she and their two children (Jojo, 13, and Kayla, 2) set out together to pick him up. Their days traveling through rural Mississippi are filled with family tension, drug trafficking, and ghostly presences.
Key Quote: “When Mama first realized that something was seriously wrong with her body, that it had betrayed her and turned cancerous, she began by treating it herself with herbs. …Her body broke down over the years until she took to her bed, permanently, and I forgot so much of what she taught me. I let her ideas drain from me so that the truth could pool instead. Sometimes the world don’t give you what you need, no matter how hard you look. Sometimes it withholds.”
Read if You Like: Southern gothic fiction, flawed and complex characters, or novels that connect America’s past and present demons through incisive portraits of black American experiences.
My Take: I’m in the minority of readers in that I found this book rather bland and static. But there’s a wonderfully seething undercurrent to the story, and there’s a reason Ward’s lyrical writing has earned her legions of fans.
Previously known as the Bailey’s Prize for Fiction (2013-2016) and the Orange Prize for Fiction (1996-2012), the Women’s Prize for Fiction announced their 2018 shortlist. The award celebrates “excellence, originality and accessibility in women’s writing from throughout the world.”
The shortlist, which includes three debut novelists, is as follows (with bonus links when possible):
The Idiot by Elif Batuman (our review)
The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock by Imogen Hermes Gowar
Sight by Jessie Greengrass
When I Hit You: Or, A Portrait of the Writer as a Young Wife by Meena Kandasamy
Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie (part of our 2017 Great Book Preview)
Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward (The Millions’ interview with Ward)
The Pulitzer jury named Andrew Sean Greer’s Less this year’s winner in the fiction category.
Here are this year’s Pulitzer winners and finalists with bonus links:
Winner: The Gulf:The Making of an American Sea by Jack E. Davis
Fear City: New York’s Fiscal Crisis and the Rise of Austerity Politics by Kim Phillips-Fein
Hitler in Los Angeles: How Jews Foiled Nazi Plots Against Hollywood and America by Steven J. Ross
Biography or Autobiography:
Winner: Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder by Caroline Fraser
Richard Nixon: The Life by John A. Farrell
Robert Lowell, Setting the River on Fire by Kay Redfield Jamison
Winners and finalists in other categories are available at the Pulitzer Web site.