In early 2016, during a monthslong relocation to Barcelona, I fell under the spell of three contemporary masters of Spanish-language fiction: Javier Cercas, of Barcelona, Javier Marías, of Madrid, and Álvaro Enrigue, of Mexico and New York. Even now, back in the U.S., I feel with these writers the special connection you get when your reading life and your life-life come close enough to touch. And over the last couple years, I’ve managed to track each of them down for an interview. The first piece in this series featured Cercas and the second Enrigue; the finale, though the first of them chronologically, features Marías.
The internationally bestselling author of novels including A Heart So White, The Infatuations, and the trilogy Your Face Tomorrow, Javier Marías has often been called “Spain’s living greatest writer.” His new collection of essays, Between Eternities, is his first to appear in English in a quarter century and features meditations on lederhosen, soccer, Joseph Conrad, and “Why Almost No One Can Be Trusted.” I sat down with him at the 92nd Street Y in late 2016 to discuss his “literary thinking” on the occasion of his novel Thus Bad Begins (video of the event can be found at 92y.org). What follows is a slightly condensed version of that discussion.
The Millions: I read an interview where you talked—I’m not sure how facetiously—about writing novels for the purpose of including a few paragraphs or sentences that wouldn’t stand up on their own … where the novel is a sort of arch to hold up this one capstone. The example you gave in the interview was Tomorrow in the Battle, Think on Me. I’m wondering if there is similarly a core passage or image or set of paragraphs or images in Thus Bad Begins that you felt yourself writing around or toward … or that you began with.
Javier Marías: Well, if there is, I won’t say which one! But what I meant then, and maybe it’s true sometimes, is that most novelists … or, that would be presumptuous on my part, at least the kind of novelist I am, and maybe others too, often think (of course, you’re never able to judge what you do) that there are a few paragraphs or a couple of pages that are better than the rest.
In my case, I usually think—and I may be mistaken, of course—of some paragraphs which are slightly lyrical, or they contain a digression or a reflection or a short meditation, maybe it’s even half a page or something, sometimes a little more … and you are rather satisfied with that. You say, “This is the gist.” The gist of the novel? You can say that?
TM: I think so. I think you can say that: the gist.
JM: I mean that when the novel is more or less finished, there is sometimes the thought, “Well, now I realize”—at least, in my case; I’m speaking always for myself, obviously—“that because of these paragraphs, I wrote this novel. Because of this couple of pages, for instance. I realize that now.” And then sometimes you think—because I’m not a poet, I don’t write poetry, never wrote poetry, not even when I was a young man or a teenager—you say, “But I had to surround this with something else, with something huge, with an architecture to hold it, to make it acceptable. What I want is the reader mainly to look at these pages, but I have to distract him or her with stories, plots, dialogues—”
TM: All that stuff.
JM: All that stuff. But that is something you realize when you finish the novel—it’s not something that you have in your mind previously.
TM: I see. So you’re speaking of those paragraphs for which you realize, in the end, “All along I was moving toward this …”
JM: In a way, yes. But it’s not a premeditated thing to do. That would be … vile, I suppose. But sometimes you say [later], well, yeah, the justification for this whole thing is these two pages.
TM: You you spoke of plot and character and “all that stuff” … and I wanted to talk about one of those things, one of those novelistic things that keeps readers reading, which is the degree—especially in your novels—the degree of suspense generated. Often when I’m reading you, even before I know what the question is, I feel myself waiting to get to the answer. I remember reading The Infatuations, the moment when Maria is going to the door to eavesdrop, and I was reading as though I were in a movie theater, covering my eyes. You know, “Don’t go to that door!” I’m wondering how cognizant you are of the pulse of suspense as you’re writing—whether this is something that just comes very naturally to you, or whether it’s an epiphenomenon of your style, or whether you actually do a lot of editing and revising—of scheming.
JM: Oh, no, not really. My method for writing is a very suicidal one.
TM: All methods for writing are suicidal ones.
JM: Probably, but you feel more suicidal over the one you chose. Or the one that chose you …
You know, one of the problems with novelists is that we never learn the job. We never learn it! I mean in the sense that other people do. A professor goes to give his lesson after 40 years—as is my case; I published my first novel when I was 19, which was over 40 years ago—and the teacher knows he will give a good lesson, or at least a decent one. And he will do it with ease. And the carpenter who’s been making tables for 40 years or whatever knows he will succeed with the next table. But a novelist doesn’t know that at all!
TM: Do you have a moment where you sit down to write the next book and you think you must have learned something last time?
JM: No, no, you learn you haven’t learned anything! And even if some of the previous books have been praised, and people have enjoyed them and all that, not even that is reassuring, in my case, because it’s “Oh, well, yeah, I was lucky with that one.” Or “People were misled!” Or something. But that doesn’t guarantee anything for this one that I’m starting now.
But what I was going to say is that my usual way … Well, as I’ve said on many occasions, there are of course all kinds of writers, but … There are some who write with a map, as it were. That is, they know exactly … or with a chart.
TM: I hate those people. I don’t understand them at all.
JM: No, no … why should you hate them? I mean, all methods depend on the result … But before they start a novel, they have the full story in their mind, they know exactly what’s going to happen to every character, and when, et cetera, et cetera, which is certainly not my case. I think that if I knew a complete story before I started writing a novel, I wouldn’t write it, because I’d say, “What a bore!”
I like to find out as I write. I’ve mentioned on many occasions before that the word “invent,” which is the same in English and Spanish and many other languages, “inventar” in Spanish, comes from Latin, “invenire.” And “invenire” originally, in Latin, meant to find out, to discover. And so to invent—in our sense, in English or in Spanish—has to do, etymologically at least, with the idea of finding out—which is what I like to do.
I start writing with a compass. I don’t have a map. I just have a compass. So I’m heading north, as it were. I know more or less where I would like to go, but I don’t know the way, not at all. And I don’t even know whether I shall find a desert in the middle or a cliff, or a river, or a jungle, or what. I must cross them as I find them. Whereas the one with a map knows that he will find the jungle and the desert and the cliff—but he knows beforehand, and he knows very well when and how.
And then the thing is that I don’t know exactly how I do my novels. Every time, I realize I don’t know how a novel is written. I don’t know how other people write them, and in fact, I don’t know how I write them myself. All of a sudden you happen to have 300 or 400 or even 500 pages, and say, “Oh. This looks like a novel.” But I work page by page. I never make a draft of five or 10 pages in a row. Never. I make one page, I work on that—I still use a typewriter—and then I take out the piece of paper and I make corrections by hand and erase things, add arrows and suppressions and additions and everything. Then I retype it again, once, twice, three times, four times—five times, sometimes—until I think, “Well, I can’t do it better than this.” Or “I’m tired,” which is also possible. And then that page generally goes to the printer like that. One page after another.
And I never reread the whole thing until the novel is finished. Because I’ve been saying, “Oh, come on. I have 200 pages now. Shall I reread them? What if I found them awful? Now the whole thing would be ruined. And I wouldn’t have the faith to go on.” So I won’t read them. And just one by one, one by one, each as if it were the only one, I concentrate on that one page, I do it as best I can, but it has no real relationship to the next one or to the previous one, so to me it is rather mysterious that in the end, as some readers, very kind readers, have told me—some of them even say, “I couldn’t put it down”—“Your novels are so seamless!” And I say, “Oh, dear me, it’s exactly the opposite.”
TM: I think the reason I said I hate the map people is that I have this idea that the map people aren’t suicidal. And that it’s the compass people who are going, I have no idea how to—
JM: No, they are [suicidal], too.
TM: OK. Well, that’s reassuring.
JM: No, they are, too, because there is one thing that plays against them, I think. Which is, because of their knowing exactly what’s going to happen throughout the novel, or what suspense they will need at a given moment, they are more predictable. And sometimes they don’t realize that, because they already know the ending, the reader can get the ending much easier than in the novels of the writers with only a compass, who have improvised, who didn’t know the ending, even 30 pages from the end. I remember I wrote a short novel in 1986, in which I was 30 pages from the end and didn’t even know who was going to die, or if anyone was going to die. And I had to decide: “Shall I make him die?” Now it seems impossible that someone else would die instead of the one who did die, but of course, a long time has elapsed …
And by the way, if you’ll allow me, I think it’s worth talking [more] about that. I think it’s one of the reasons why we still write and read fiction … I wrote a few years ago a speech that was on telling, and what I said was that telling is very difficult, and that telling actual things is almost impossible—for a historian, for instance. A historian tells facts, as much as he knows about them, but some other historian may come along and contradict him or her, and say, “No, no, no, you’re not right.” Or say, for instance, “We have just discovered a bunch of letters from Napoleon, and that makes the story completely different …” Even when we tell something that we just witnessed, an incident that happened this morning on the way to our job, on the subway, for instance … and you say, “Well, I saw this man striking that other man,” and you start telling something very simple, and then if someone else is with you who witnessed the scene, they say, “Wait a minute, you came late to the scene, because what you didn’t see, I saw. I had a better angle. It’s that the beaten man provoked the other one,” and so on. So nothing is very certain …Telling with words is very difficult. Everything can be denied, everything can be contradicted.
And I think that one of the reasons we write and read novels is that in a way we need something, even if it’s fictional, even if it never did happen, to be told once and for good, once and forever. And the only thing that no one can contradict or deny is fiction. I mean, Madame Bovary died the way she did. And no one can come and say, “Oh, I disagree. She didn’t die.” Or “She stabbed herself.”
TM: “She faked her death.”
JM: No one can say that. So Madame Bovary did die, died the way Flaubert decided, and that’s the end of it! No one can contradict it. And even if it’s fiction, even if she didn’t really exist, we need the security, or the comfort, of something told for sure, once and for all. And something not told forever, as well—for you must have in mind that what is not told in a novel shall never be told by anyone … What is told is told forever, what is not told shall never be. No?
TM: No, this sounds plausible to me. It’s like: The only thing we can believe in is what’s completely made up.
JM: Yes. But at least we have a full story, you know?
TM: And your father was a philosopher, is that right?
JM: Ortega y Gasset’s main disciple, yes.
TM: And so I wanted to ask you finally: There’s almost a philosophical world in which your fiction takes place, preoccupations with eternity, and infinity, and variation and the impossibility of variation, with, you know, what’s about to happen, what can never happen, everything has already happened. Have you been thinking about these things more or less your whole life, or was there a moment in your writing life where you thought, a-ha! “This should come into my work.”
JM: I don’t think my novels are philosophical at all, precisely because my father was a philosopher and I know … that there is a huge difference between what a novelist can do and what a philosopher does, to begin with.
What I do, I think, is a different thing, and I’m not the only one to do it—in the past, many of us did it—which is what you might call, and what I have called often, literary thinking. Which has nothing to do with thinking about literature, that would be boring, it’s thinking literarily of things.
I mean, you have all kinds of thinking, religious thinking, scientifical thinking, philosophical thinking, of course, psychoanalytic, whatever …all kinds of thinking. There is a literary way of thinking, as well. And it has some advantages, in comparison with philosophy, for instance. One of those things is when you all of a sudden say something in a novel that the reader recognizes as something truthful … I’ve often used the word “recognition” for novels. I think one of the things that moves me most as a reader is when I find a scene or a meditation or an observation in a novel and I recognize it and say, “Yes, yes, this is true. I have experienced this, but I didn’t know that I knew it, until I’ve seen it said by Proust.” Of course, he’s the master of that, or Shakespeare, as well. And then, [in a novel] you can say these things in a very arbitrary way. They are like flashes. Whereas philosophers—or at least the old philosophers—need to demonstrate the principle, need to demonstrate step by step what a novelist doesn’t.
On the contrary, a novelist just throws something, throws a true sentence, or a true observation. Someone who reads it may feel it’s true precisely because he recognizes something he didn’t know he knew. But he recognizes it and says, “I’ve experienced that.” And I think that’s quite a different thing. To answer your question, it’s not something that I already decided, “Oh, this could be useful for my novels.” No, I don’t look for subjects for my novels. For the last 30 years, I usually write on the same things that concern me in my life. And the things that make me think. And some of them are, for instance, secrecy, treason, friendship, betrayal … the impossibility of knowing anything for certain.
This year I have been keeping a list. The first book I read was The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark. A friend recommended it and she was right. This slim novel is very funny. I went on to read more books by Muriel Spark, like The Finishing School and The Driver’s Seat. I remember trying to read Memento Mori at a café with a woman I had a crush on, and I couldn’t read it. I stared down at the same page for an hour. I’m sure it’s a good book!
By the summer, I was living in a sublet in Brooklyn. In that shabby room crowded with mood boards and Zen trinkets, I read The Orchid Thief by Susan Orlean, Homesick for Another World by Ottessa Moshfegh, a grotesque, startling vision of contemporary life on this planet, and The Answers by Catherine Lacey, a gorgeous and incisive account of people struggling to answer impossible questions about what it means to be a flawed human in relation to other flawed humans.
A couple months ago, I moved from a sublet in Brooklyn to a place in Ditmas Park. I read Taipei by Tao Lin, which is one of the most uncomfortable and awkward books I’ve ever encountered. It moved me. I adore it.
My friend Brandon Shimoda, a poet, sent me his journal. He printed it out and mailed it to me in a priority envelope. He writes about dreams, walking, his impressions of people on the bus, etc. Sample entry: “Couldn’t care less about poetry or its mind, I just want to make things out of trash and give it all away.”
And finally: Sunshine State by Sarah Gerard. Sarah Gerard is a writer who also happens to be a detective, an intellectual, and a hobo. Her collection of essays about Florida, religion, friendship, sex, and eccentric people and their questionable activities made me perceive the world in a different way. I fell in love with her, so I might be kind of biased.
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As if to mark the new year, or as if preemptively depressed by the brutal lows and snows of the months to come, our thermostat suffered a nervous breakdown in the first weeks of 2015. The new normal was 63 degrees Fahrenheit. I’d wake before dawn, put on long johns, pants, fleece, and hat, and sit down at my desk, between north-facing windows, trying to start something new. The phrase “rough draft” took on a new meaning. As did the phrase “starting cold.” By noon — an interval during which I’d moved only to shower and take the kids to school and re-wrap myself in a horse blanket — my fingers and nose were phantom appendages. Looking back on this now, though, I feel a surge of warmth. Why? Because every afternoon, after a late lunch, I’d fire up the space heater in the living room and sprawl in a patch of sun and return to an imagined Italy.
I’d begun Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels with a rationing plan: one volume for each season of the year, to culminate with the publication of the fourth and final installment in September. But a week after I finished Volume 1, that plan went all to hell. More than Lila and Lenù (heroines, antagonists, entangled particles), I missed the volcanic energy they generated together. Nothing else I tried to read seemed quite as vivid. So I dipped into Volume 2 — just a few pages, I told myself. And then when I reached the end, I didn’t even pretend to wait to begin Volume 3. At various times, in the empty house, I caught myself talking back to the page. “Wake up, Lenù!” “Don’t open that door!” “Oh, no, she didn’t!” Oh, yes, she did.
The only not-fun part of binge-reading the Neapolitan series was running out of pages before the end — which, by mid-February, I had. I felt like Wile E. Coyote, having raced out over a canyon, legs still churning, but with nothing left beneath. Eventually, I found a different kind of escape: Ivan Goncharov’s Oblomov, a dreamy 19th-century Russian novel where, basically, nothing happens. Rather than distract me from my snowbound state, this novel seemed to mirror it. For the first 100 pages, Oblomov, our hero, can’t even get out of bed. He’s an archetype of inanition, a Slavic Bartleby, but with a gentleness of spirit that’s closer to The Big Lebowski. He falls in love, screws it up, gets rooked by friends and enemies…and hardly has to change his dressing gown.
Sufficiently cooled from Ferrante fever, I moved on to Elizabeth Hardwick’s Sleepless Nights, from 1979. I’ve taught (and admired) Hardwick’s essays, but was somehow unprepared for this novel. Fans often mention it in the company of Renata Adler’s Speedboat and Joan Didion’s Play It as It Lays, with which it shares a jagged, elliptical construction and a quality of nervy restraint. But where the fragments of Adler and Didion suggest (for me, anyway), a kind of schizoid present-tense, Hardwick’s novel is as swinging and stately as a song by her beloved Billie Holiday, ringing “glittering, somber, and solitary” changes from remembered joy and pain.
As the glaciers beyond my windows melted to something more shovel-ready, I began to fantasize about a piece called “In Praise of Small Things.” At the top of the list, along with the Hardwick, would go Denis Johnson’s Train Dreams, the story of a Western railroad worker around the turn of the last century. I’m still a sucker for full, Ferrante-style immersion (favorite Westerns include The Border Trilogy, Lonesome Dove, and A Fistful of Dollars), but to deliver an entire life in a single sitting, as Johnson does, seems closer to magic than to art. Train Dreams is just about perfect, in the way only a short novel can be.
Then again, I also (finally) tackled The Satanic Verses this year, and caught myself thinking that perfection would have marred it. The book is loose, ample, brimful — at times bubbling over with passion. Another way of saying this is that it’s Salman Rushdie’s most generous novel. The language is often amazing. And frankly, that the fatwa now overshadows the work it meant to rub out is a compound injustice; many of the novel’s most nuanced moments, its most real and human moments, involve precisely those issues of belief and politics and belonging Rushdie was accused of caricaturing. Also: the shaving scene made me cry.
Though by that point spring had my blood up. Maybe that’s why I was so ready for Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s The Leopard. Or maybe it was the return to Italy. Either way, this turned out to be one of the most beautiful novels I’ve ever read. As with Hardwick, the mode is elegy, but here all is expansion, sumptuousness, texture: the fading way of life of an endearingly self-regarding 19th-century aristocrat, ambered in slow, rich prose (in Archibald Colquhoun’s translation): “In a corner the gold of an acacia tree introduced a sudden note of gaiety. Every sod seemed to exude a yearning for beauty soon muted by languor.” And by the time I finished, gardens were blooming and buzzing around me, too.
I woke the morning after our Fourth of July party to find that a guest had left a gift: Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen, Mary Norris’s memoir of life in the copy department of The New Yorker. We headed to the beach, on the theory that saltwater is an antidote to hangover. But I ended up spending most of the afternoon on a towel, baking, giggling, geeking out over grammar and New Yorker trivia. What kind of magazine keeps a writer this engaging in the copy department? I wondered. On the other hand: what are the odds that a grammarian this scrupulous would be such a freewheeling confidante?
I don’t think of myself as a memoir guy, but (appetite whetted by the Comma Queen), I ran out a few weeks later to buy a brand new copy of William Finnegan’s Barbarian Days — a book I’d been waiting to read since first encountering an excerpt a decade ago. Finnegan is a brilliant reporter, and the core material here — his life of peripatetic adventuring in the 1970s — seems, as material goes, unimprovable. Around it, he builds a narrative that is at once meticulously concrete and wonderfully, elusively metaphorical. Even if you don’t know or care about surfing, the whole thing starts to seem like some kind of parable. Which may be true of most good sports writing…
And speaking of brilliant reporting: in early August, I plucked a copy of David Simon and Ed Burns’s The Corner from the giveaway pile on someone’s stoop. It’s exhaustive — almost 600 pages, and none of the broad strokes, in 2015, should come as news. Yet its account of individual struggle and systemic failure in a poor neighborhood in Baltimore is nonetheless enraging, because so little seems to have changed since the book’s publication in 1997. I found myself wanting to send a copy to every newsroom in the country. Here on the page are causes; there in the paper years later, effects.
It would take a week of vacation and newspaper-avoidance in Maine to remind me of how urgent fiction can be, too — or of the value of the different kind of news it brings. I read A Sport and a Pastime. I read Double Indemnity. I read The House of Mirth. And I fell into — utterly into — Javier Marías’s A Heart So White. This novel has some similarities with The Infatuations, which I wrote about last year; Marías works from a recipe (one part Hitchcock-y suspense, one part Sebaldian fugue, one part sly humor) that sounds, on paper, like a doomed thought experiment. Yet somehow every time I read one of his novels, I feel lit up, viscerally transfixed. And A Heart So White is, I think, a masterpiece.
This October, I published a novel. And I came to suspect that prepub jitters had been shaping both my reading and my writing all year, from those cold dark starts in January to my lean toward nonfiction in the summer. Anyway, some admixture of vacation and publication (the phrase “release date” takes on a whole new meaning) seemed to cleanse the windows of perception, because I spent most of the fall catching up on — and enjoying — recent books I’d missed. Preparation for the Next Life, for example, was love at fist page; if you’d told me Atticus Lish was another of Don DeLillo’s pseudonyms, like Cleo Birdwell, I wouldn’t have batted an eyelash. Yet an eccentric and (one feels) highly personal sense of the particular and the universal colors the prose, and Lish doesn’t let sentimentalism scare him away from sentiment. His milieu of hardscrabble immigrants and natives jostling in Flushing, Queens, feels both up-to-the-minute and likely to endure. Someone should Secret-Santa a copy to Donald Trump.
Another contemporary novel I loved this fall was actually more of a novella — another small, good thing. Called Grief Is the Thing with Feathers, it’s the first published work of fiction by a young Englishman named Max Porter. It follows a father of two through the year after the death of his wife. The chapters are compressed, poetic vignettes that evoke the chimera of grief through suggestion and indirection. And then, more evocative still: the arrival of a giant, metempsychotic raven straight out of Ted Hughes’s Crow. You quickly forget that the book is weird as hell, because it is also beautiful as hell, moving as hell, and funny as hell.
In late October, I got to spend a week in the U.K., and decided to pack London Fields. A boring choice, I know, but I’d been shuttling from here to there for a few weeks, and needed to be pinned down in some specific, preferably Technicolor, place. London Fields didn’t let me down. The metafictional schema shouldn’t work, but does. And more importantly, a quarter century after its publication (and 15 years on from the pre-millennial tension it depicts), the prose still bristles, jostles, offends freely, shoots off sparks. The picture of the world on offer is bleak, yes. Yet in surprise, in pleasure, in truthfulness, almost every sentence surpasses the last. This book is now my favorite Martin Amis. I wouldn’t trade it for love or Money.
As synchronicity goes, M Train on a plane may not quite match London Fields in London, but Patti Smith’s new book remains one of the best reading experiences I had this year. Like Grief Is the Thing with Feathers, it is elliptical and fragmentary, weird and beautiful, and, at its core, a reckoning with loss. Much has been made of the book’s seeming spontaneity, its diaristic drift. But as the echoes among its discrete episodes pile up, it starts to resonate like a poem. At one point, Smith writes about W.G. Sebald, and there are affinities with The Emigrants in the way M Train circles around a tragedy, or constellation of tragedies, pointing rather than naming. It is formally a riskier book than the comparatively straight-ahead Just Kids, but a worthy companion piece. And that Patti Smith is still taking on these big artistic dares in 2015 should inspire anyone who longs to make art. In this way, and because it is partly a book about reading other books — how a life is made of volumes— it seems like a fitting way to turn the page on one year in reading, and to welcome in another.
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The first thing I thought of while trying to write this list was the pile of books I have not even started, that I feel guilty for not reading, or have not yet finished reading this year. I have problems with guilt. To stoke that fire, I’ll mention some books I reread (while I clearly should have been reading other books for the first time): I revisited Max Frisch’s masterpiece Montauk because while devouring Jenny Offill’s irreducible and totally beautiful Dept. of Speculation I noticed echoes between the two books. I was even compelled to write an essay about the experience. I “reread” Flannery O’Connor’s Wise Blood by listening to it on audio, and was amazed after I was finished to find all those voices, and accents, all that violence, and all those profoundly religious and genuinely creepy moments were delivered by Bronson Pinchot. What a reader! I had no idea. Truly a perfect stranger to me. I reread the first quarter or so of Thomas Mann’s Doctor Faustus and once again found myself nodding off, wishing he would please stop already with the lecturing on musical theory and just get on with the story. I reread James Baldwin’s Go Tell It on the Mountain only to discover I have been subconsciously stealing moves from that book for years.
I loved David Gerrard’s debut Short Century, a twisted tale of moral relativism, political posturing, drone strikes, and incest. What more could you want? Will Chancellor’s A Brave Man Seven Storeys Tall knocked my socks off. Amy Jo Burns’s Cinderland made me cry and want to listen to Nine Inch Nails — at the same time, which is exactly how you should listen to Nine Inch Nails. I read Chelsea Hodson’s Pity the Animal, twice. It is quite short but huge in scope and ambition. I can’t wait to see what she does next.
2014 Homeruns: Roberto Bolano’s A Little Lumpen Novelita is impossibly good like all of his best stuff and while it comes in last chronologically (we shall see…), it leaps to the near head of the line as one of his best books. I would read Javier Marías’s “to do” lists with pleasure (then again, all of his books sort of read like deeply ruminated “to do” lists), and so I found The Infatuations, all of its secrets and obsessions, its violence and cheating, all of its murder and sex, a superb addition to my shelves. Jason Porter’s Why Are You So Sad? was by far the funniest novel of the year (and one of the weirdest, and one of the saddest, and one of the most philosophical). And the only thing that could have made Marilynn Robinson’s Lila better were if she rocked me in her arms as she read it to me as if I were her child.
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This year, for the first time since I was 18, I suffered a bout of what you might call Reader’s Block. It hit me in the spring and lasted about six weeks. The proximate cause was an excess of work, hunched hours in front of a computer that left me feeling like a jeweler’s loupe was lodged in each eye. I’d turn to the door of my study — Oh, God! An axe-wielding giant! No, wait: that’s just my two year old, offering a mauled bagel. And because the only prose that doesn’t look comparably distorted at that level of magnification belongs to E.B. White, Gertrude Stein, and whoever wrote the King James Bible, I mostly confined myself to the newspaper, when I read anything at all.
This hiatus from literature gave me a new compassion for people who glance up from smartphones to tell me they’re too busy to read, and for those writers (students, mostly) who claim to avoid other people’s work when they’re working. Yet I found that for me, at least, the old programmer’s maxim applies: Garbage In, Garbage Out. I mean this not just as someone with aesthetic aspirations, or pretensions, or whatever, but also as a human being.
The deeper cause of my reader’s block, I can admit now, was my father’s death at the end of May, after several years of illness. He was a writer, too; he’d published a novel when he was about the age I am now, and subsequently a travelogue. And maybe I had absorbed, over the years, some of his misapprehensions about what good writing might accomplish, vis-a-vis mortality; maybe I was now rebelling against the futility of the whole enterprise. I don’t know. I do know that in the last weeks before he died, those weeks of no reading, I felt anxious, adrift, locked inside my grief.
Then in June, on some instinct to steer into the skid, I reached for Henderson the Rain King. It was the last of the major Bellows I hadn’t read. I’d shied away partly for fear of its African setting, but mostly because it was the Saul Bellow book my father would always recommend. I’d say I was reading Humboldt’s Gift, and he’d say, “But have you read Henderson the Rain King?” Or I’d say I was reading Middlemarch, and he’d say “Sure, but have you read Henderson the Rain King?” I’d say I was heavily into early Sonic Youth. “Okay, but there’s this wonderful book…” There were times when I wondered if he’d actually read Henderson the Rain King, or if, having established that I hadn’t read it, he saw it as a safe way to short-circuit any invitation into my inner life. And I suppose I was afraid that if I finally read Henderson and was unmoved, or worse, it would either confirm the hypothesis or demolish for all time my sense of my dad as a person of taste.
But of course the novel’s mise-en-scène is a ruse (as Bellow well knew, never having been to Africa). Or if that still sounds imperialist, a dreamscape. Really, the whole thing is set at the center of a battered, lonely, yearning, and comical human heart. A heart that says, “I want, I want, I want.” A heart that could have been my father’s. Or my own. And though that heart doesn’t get what it wants — that’s not its nature — it gets something perhaps more durable. Midway through the novel, King Dahfu of the Wariri tries to talk a woebegone Henderson into hanging out with a lion:
“What can she do for you? Many things. First she is unavoidable. Test it, and you will find she is unavoidable. And this is what you need, as you are an avoider. Oh, you have accomplished momentous avoidances. But she will change that. She will make consciousness to shine. She will burnish you. She will force the present moment upon you. Second, lions are experiences. But not in haste. They experience with deliberate luxury…Then there are more subtle things, as how she leaves hints, or elicits caresses. But I cannot expect you to see this at first. She has much to teach you.”
To which Henderson replies: “‘Teach? You really mean that she might change me.’”
“‘Excellent,'” the king says:
“Precisely. Change. You fled what you were. You did not believe you had to perish. Once more, and a last time, you tried the world. With a hope of alteration. Oh, do not be surprised by such a recognition.”
The lion stuff in Henderson, like the tennis stuff in Infinite Jest, inclines pretty nakedly toward ars poetica. Deliberate luxury, burnished consciousness, a sense of inevitability — aren’t these a reader’s hopes, too? And then: the deep recognition, the resulting change. Henderson the Rain King gave me all that, at the time when I needed it most. Then again, such a recognition is always surprising, because it’s damn hard to come by. And so, though I’m already at 800 words here, I’d like to list some of my other best reading experiences of 2014 (the back half of which amounted to a long, post-Henderson binge). Maybe one of them will do for you what that lion did for me.
Light Years, by James Salter
Despite the eloquent advocacy of my Millions colleague Sonya Chung, I’d always had this idea of James Salter as some kind of Mandarin, a writer for other writers. But I read Light Years over two days in August, and found it a masterpiece. The beauty of Salter’s prose — and it is beautiful — isn’t the kind that comes from fussing endlessly over clauses, but the kind that comes from looking up from the page, listening hard to whatever’s beyond. And what Light Years hears, as the title suggests, is time passing, the arrival and inevitable departure of everything dear to us. It is music like ice cracking, a river in the spring.
The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, by Muriel Spark
I’ve long known I should read Muriel Spark, but it took the republication of some of her backlist (by New Directions) to get me off the fence. Spark shares with Salter a sublime detachment, an almost Olympian view of the passage of time. This latter seems to be her real subject in Miss Jean Brodie, inscribed even in the dazzling structure of the novel. But unlike Salter, Spark is funny. Really funny. Her reputation for mercilessness is not unearned, but the comedy here is deeper, I think. As in Jonathan Franzen’s novels, it issues less from the exposure of flawed and unlikeable characters than from the author’s warring impulses: to see them clearly, vs. to love them. Ultimately, in most good fiction, these amount to the same thing.
The Unbearable Lightness of Being, by Milan Kundera
This was a popular novel among grown-ups when I was a kid, and so I was pleasantly surprised to discover how stubborn and weird a work it is. And lovable for all that. Kundera keeps us at a peculiar distance from his protagonists, almost as if telling a fairy tale. Description is sparing. Plot is mostly sex. Also travel. At times, I had to remind myself which character was which. In a short story, this might be a liability. Yet somehow, over the length of the novel, through nuances of juxtaposition and patterning, Kundera manages to evoke states of feeling I’ve never seen on the page before. Political sadness. Emotional philosophy. The unbearable lightness of the title. All of this would seem to be as relevant in the U.S. in 2015 as in 1970s Prague.
The Infatuations, by Javier Marías
Hari Kunzru has captured, in a previous Year in Reading entry, how forbidding Javier Marías’s novels can seem from a distance. (Though maybe this is true of all great stylists. Lolita, anyone?) Marías is a formidably cerebral writer, whose long sentences are like fugues: a theme is introduced, toyed with, pursued to another theme, put down, taken up again. None of this screams pleasure. But neither would a purely formal description of an Alfred Hitchcock movie. The tremendous pleasure of The Infatuations, Marías’s most recent novel to appear in English, arrives from those most uncerebral places: plot, suspense, character. It’s like a literary version of Strangers on a Train, cool formal mastery put to exquisitely visceral effect. “Don’t open that door, Maria!” The Infatuations is the best new novel I read all year; I knew within the first few pages that I would be reading every book Mariás has written.
All the Birds, Singing, by Evie Wyld
This haunting, poetic novel manages to convey in a short space a great deal about compulsion and memory and the human capacity for good and evil. Wyld’s narrator, Jake, is one of the most distinctive and sympathetic heroines in recent literature, a kind of Down Under Huck Finn. Her descriptions of the Australian outback are indelible. And the novel’s backward-and-forward form manages a beautiful trick: it simultaneously dramatizes the effects of trauma and attends to our more literary hungers: for form, for style. It reminded me forcefully of another fine book that came out of the U.K. this year, Eimear McBride’s A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing.
Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, by Hilary Mantel
I’d be embarrassed at my lateness to the Thomas Cromwell saga, were I not so glad to have finally made it. Mantel’s a serious enough historical novelist not to shy away from those conventions of the genre that usually turn me off; the deliberate pacing of her trilogy-in-progress requires some getting used to. But more than a chronicler, Mantel is a novelist, full-stop. She excels at pretty much everything, and plays the long game brilliantly. By the time you get into the intrigues of Bring Up the Bodies, you’re flying so fast you hardly notice the beautiful calibration of the prose, or the steady deepening of the psychology, or the big thoughts the novel is thinking about pragmatism and Englishness and gender and the mystery of personality.
Dispatches, by Michael Herr
If you took the horrific public-burning scene from Wolf Hall, multiplied that by 100, put those pages in a hot-boxed Tomahawk piloted by Dr. Strangelove, and attempted to read them over the blare of the Jefferson Airplane, you’d end up with something like Dispatches. It is simultaneously one of the greatest pieces of New Journalism I’ve ever read and one of the greatest pieces of war writing. Indeed, each achievement enables the other. The putatively embedded journalism of our own wars already looks dated by comparison. Since the publication of Dispatches in 1977, Herr’s output has been slender, but I’d gladly read anything he wrote.
White Girls, by Hilton Als
This nonfiction collection casts its gaze all over the cultural map, from Flannery O’Connor to Michael Jackson, yet even more than most criticism, it adds up to a kind of diffracted autobiography. The longest piece in the book is devastating, the second-longest tough to penetrate, but this unevenness speaks to Als’s virtues as an essayist. His sentences have a quality most magazine writing suffocates beneath a veneer of glibness: the quality of thinking. That is, he seems at once to have a definite point-of-view, passionately held, and to be very much a work in progress. It’s hard to think of higher praise for a critic.
Utopia or Bust, by Benjamin Kunkel
This collection of sterling essays (many of them from the London Review of Books) covers work by David Graeber, Robert Brenner, Slavoj Zizek, and others, offering a state-of-the-union look at what used to be called political economy — a nice complement to the research findings of Thomas Piketty. Kunkel is admirably unembarrassed by politics as such, and is equally admirable as an autodidact in the field of macroeconomics. He synthesizes from his subjects one of the more persuasive accounts you’ll read about how we got into the mess we’re in. And his writing has lucidity and wit. Of Fredric Jameson, for example, he remarks: “Not often in American writing since Henry James can there have been a mind displaying at once such tentativeness and force.”
The Origin of the Brunists, by Robert Coover
The publication this spring of a gargantuan sequel, The Brunist Day of Wrath, gave me an excuse to go back and read Coover’s first novel, from 48 years ago. As a fan of his midcareer highlights, The Public Burning and Pricksongs and Descants, I was expecting postmodern glitter. Instead I got something closer to William Faulkner: tradition and modernity collide in a mining town beset by religious fanaticism. Yet with the attenuation of formal daring comes an increased access to Coover’s capacity for beauty, in which he excels many of his well-known peers. Despite its (inspired) misanthropy, this is a terrific novel. I couldn’t help wishing, as I did with much of what I read this year, that my old man was still around, that I might recommend it to him, and so repay the debt.
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Javier Marías cogently summarizes all the reasons to stop writing novels immediately, and adds only one reason to write them anyway: “Fiction is the most bearable of worlds.” We reviewed The Infatuations, one of his own twelve works (to date), last year.
Francine Prose has a new novel out this week, while Elizabeth McCracken has a new story collection on shelves. Also out: Chestnut Street by the late Maeve Binchy; In the Light of What We Know by Zia Haider Rahman; Terms and Conditions by Robert Glancy; The Selected Letters of Elia Kazan; and new paperback editions of The Color Master by Aimee Bender and The Infatuations by Javier Marias.