The Invention of Morel (New York Review Books Classics)

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Born Out of Rapt Distraction: On Silvina Ocampo’s ‘Thus Were Their Faces’

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This essay is the introduction to the new NYRB Classics edition of Thus Were Their Faces by Silvina Ocampo, translated by Daniel Balderston.

What we have in Silvina Ocampo is a writer of the Big Bad Wolf school. In 1979 her 42-year body of work was denied Argentina’s National Prize for Literature. “Demasiado crueles” (far too cruel) was the verdict of that year’s panel of judges.[1] It wasn’t Ocampo’s poetry the judges were talking about — she’d won notable poetry prizes in previous years. Perhaps her alternately burning and freezing dislocations of perspective are slightly more orthodox in the realm of poetry, where to some extent we half expect to lose our footing and find something startling in the gap between verses. In Ocampo’s poem “A Tiger Speaks,” having briefly surveyed episodes of interaction between humankind and other species in the first stanza, the tiger begins her second stanza with the remark: “We never managed to agree / about man’s true nature.”[2] The tiger’s tone awakens ominous awareness of a class of gaze that passes over the deeds of human beings and finds little humanity in them. It could be that poetry is more readily accepted as a natural vessel for long-distance dispatches of this kind, no matter how precise or orderly the poem’s technical form. Short stories tend to be received quite differently: certain structural assurances are demanded, some guarantee that if and when an event or an idea throws us off-balance, by the end that balance will be restored, or at the very least the tools for its restoration will be within reach. And so “far too cruel” was the verdict on Ocampo’s short fiction, some of the best of which is collected in this book. It’s true that aside from their narrative technique of tripping you up and leaving you on the floor, Ocampo’s stories narrate the inner lives of heartless children, half-mad lovers, and assorted others who lean out of the pages to speak to us with all their anomie showing. Here’s the narrator of “Friends,” for example, sardonically noting the external resemblance between a surfeit of grief and a light smattering of gaiety: “Nearly the whole town was in mourning; the cemetery looked like a flower show, and the streets sounded like a bell-ringing contest.”

As readers of Ocampo we follow the first Red Riding Hood, bypassing that initial pretense of going among the leaves of a book or a forest in search of kindly, tidy wisdom from the type of grandmother nobody ever really had. No, there are voices we follow knowing full well that we’ll be led astray. I’m tempted to call Ocampo’s readers Red Reading Hoods, but I can well imagine your scorn. In her stories characters negotiate the entrapments of time, which rewards relentless determination, or at least doesn’t punish it. In “Icera,” a small girl from a poor family decides not to grow any bigger than the biggest doll in the doll department of a toy store near her house; her efforts to keep her material wants small face a setback after Icera’s four-inch growth spurt, but that addition of four inches to her height is the full extent of her physical growth between preadolescence and middle age, and we leave her being packaged up happily in a blue cardboard box intended for the transportation of an expensive doll. The narrator doesn’t invite us to wonder at or worry about this turn of events; there’s a level on which Ocampo’s stories are matter-of-fact reports of the everyday traffic (outgoing) between the mind and the world.

Ocampo airily collaborated with her immediate contemporaries, co-editing anthologies and writing a short, charmingly off-kilter murder mystery called Where There’s Love, There’s Hate (1946) with her husband, Adolfo Bioy Casares. Bioy Casares is the author of one of the 20th century’s most ingenious and affecting works of fabulism, The Invention of Morel (1940), and part of the fun of reading a book co-authored by this superlatively well-read couple lies in trying to guess which parts were written by Bioy Casares, which parts were written by Ocampo, and which parts were written by one impersonating the other. Her novella The Topless Tower (1968) is an adventure diligently narrated by Leandro, a boy who finds himself trapped in a painting. Being trapped in the painting isn’t his only problem; his intellect frequently gets ahead of him and even as he describes his surroundings and encounters he underlines certain words that he uses but doesn’t yet understand (“lugubrious,” “macabre,” “cynical”); these notations serve as reminders to look up the meanings later. Here Ocampo’s fondness and flair for nonsense literature in the vein of Lewis Carroll is palpable. (Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There is, after all, a book-long chess game.) There are few other writers who can apply such abstract mischief to narrative without stripping it of its human flesh. If Ocampo’s solo fiction continues to elude canonization within Argentine literature, it will be because the tradition that Ocampo seems to work within is that of the visionary whose sensibility crosses plural borders.

Like Emily Brontë, Ocampo was a younger sister whose literary vision takes its own unruly path away from that of her elder (in Ocampo’s case this elder sister, the revered writer and critic Victoria, was her first publisher). Love is as fearsome in an Ocampo story as it is in Wuthering Heights; emotion has a way of sealing us into a charmed circle that makes us incomprehensible to everyone who stands outside it. This kind of circle shrinks and shrinks until even the beloved is impossible to read clearly, and then finally we’re unable to even pretend to understand our own thoughts. At times Ocampo’s characters speak to us as if under the influence of a truth drug that won’t permit them to simplify the expression of their motivations. In “Autobiography of Irene,” a malicious act is motivated by panic — how else can a teenage girl govern a tempestuous inner life that turns her regard for a beloved teacher into something that feels life threatening, an emotion one could drown in? “[One] day, crying because I already knew how mistaken and how unfair I could be, I made up a slander against that young lady, who had only wanted to praise me.” We also see a similar blurring of psychic attack and defense in “The House Made of Sugar,” in which, having ignored his wife’s superstitions, a man watches the logically impossible repercussions of his actions drain the stability from his marriage with a petulant malevolence that may remind you of a small tyrant who punishes her parent’s disobedience by holding her breath until she loses consciousness. At the end of that story we can only agree with the narrator’s summation: “I don’t know who was the victim of whom in that house made of sugar, which now stands empty.” From time to time a form of comic relief is derived from Ocampo’s invitation to view love, romantic or otherwise, from a position of amused disgust — in “Lovers,” a heavy date for two of Ocampo’s characters consists of the joyless, mechanical overconsumption of cake accompanied by “shy conversation on the theme of picnics: people who had died after drinking wine or eating watermelon; a poisonous spider in a picnic basket one Sunday that had killed a girl whose in-laws all hated her; canned goods that had gone bad, but looked delicious.” In “The Guests,” a gift box is found to contain “two crude magnetic dolls that couldn’t resist kissing on the lips, their necks stretched out, as soon as they were within a certain distance of each other.”

Like William Blake, Ocampo’s first voice was that of a visual artist; in her writing she retains the will to unveil the immaterial so that we might at least look at it if not touch it: “there are voices that you can see, that keep on revealing the expression of a face even after its beauty is gone,” the protagonist of “Autobiography of Irene” tells us. Blake began with drawing, but just as she tells us in her own words, Ocampo was a painter, an increasingly frustrated student of the cubist Fernand Léger (“nothing interested Léger except the design of his paintings”) and then the proto-surrealist Giorgio de Chirico (“I fought with Giorgio de Chirico and told him he sacrificed everything for the sake of color”), until she turned to writing as her own particular means of transforming reality. I consider this when the imagery in Ocampo’s stories slides between the concrete and the abstract, recalling Blake’s spectral embodiments, the ones that rise and float and walk alongside solidly hewn stars and beasts with the look of living stone. When I read “Visions,” a short story of Ocampo’s in which a bedridden woman awaits death (or recovery), I see Blake’s brutal light, rays that blast through all other colors to center and re-center his paintings and illustrations. “Beauty has no end or edges. I wait for it,” Ocampo’s narrator says. Either this presence called beauty has an innate power to change us as it approaches and recedes, or it is our own functional creation, an ever-shifting evocation of those moments beyond language when we get closer to and beat an abashed retreat from whatever it is that drives consciousness. Always within reach, yet always mysterious, is this essential self, leading Ocampo to end her own preface to this book with the question: “Will we always be students of ourselves?”

In his preface to this book, Borges writes that Ocampo “sees us as if we were made of glass, sees and forgives us. It is useless to try to fool her.” I agree that Ocampo sees, but the all-consuming grudges held by her characters create an initial difficulty in discovering just where her mercy intersects with her clear sight — in “The Fury,” a girl who receives a fish and a monkey as conciliatory gifts from her tormentor simply allows the poor creatures to starve to death. Here gentleness is merely a prologue to some truly dark deed or other. In “The Clock House,” the role at a party of a hunchbacked man named Estanislao goes from guest of honor to victim — it’s impossible to conclusively decide whether or not the child narrator is feigning incomprehension of Estanislao’s fate or is genuinely innocent. Either way we readers are brutalized by the educated guesses the narrative leads us to make. The party guests propose that Estanislao’s suit be ironed with its owner still in it; this occurs, and the commotion of this event is described in the vaguest and most chilling of terms: “Nobody was laughing except for Estanislao.” After that our young narrator N.N. steps back and will not share in the resultant vision. Elsewhere Ocampo demonstrates that she understands, alongside Emily Dickinson, that “The heart asks pleasure first / and then excuse from pain,” but this doesn’t prevent her sharp commentary on the eager adoption of strategies to excuse ourselves from pain. The narrator of “The Prayer,” a story of deadly weakness, notes the prevailing mood at the funeral of an eight-year-old killed by another eight-year-old: “Only one old lady, Miss Carmen, was sobbing, because she didn’t understand what had happened. Oh my God, how miserable, how lacking in ceremony the funeral was!”

I think what Ocampo understands is that so many of our cruelties and treacheries are born out of a sort of rapt distraction; our memories don’t work very well and we try to kick-start them with reenactions, or new and wholly unnecessary treacheries that present themselves to us as reenactions. In “The Mortal Sin,” a household servant named Chango bids his employers’ young daughter to look through a keyhole into the next room, where he’ll show her “something very beautiful.” The girl does as she’s told, and what she sees is made ghastly by the insistent voice of a man in the next room, speaking with “a commanding and sweet obscenity: ‘Doll, look! Look!’” In this way the girl is made fully conscious of her gaze being manipulated for the pleasure of another, a pleasure that’s utterly indifferent to her own dissent. “I feel such sorrow when I think how horror imitates beauty,” the narrator tells us. “Through that door, Pyramus and Thisbe, like you and Chango, spoke their love through a wall.”

These stories seem to agree with Lewis Carroll’s White Queen that it’s a poor sort of memory that only works backward, after all. And the further back we look, the less time we have left to see. Even worse, no matter how long or faithfully we look along that line, it doesn’t go back far enough, there’s still something, something big that we’ve all forgotten — we can’t remember what exactly we’re all supposed to be to each other, what we have been, what we can be, and that makes us rough playmates. The living appall us; how can we be at peace with them when they insist on standing so insistently between us and our ghosts? As Armando Heredia explains in the story “The Impostor,” it would be better if we were less careless with the influence we exert upon each others’ experience of the boundaries between life and death: “our lives depend on a certain number of people who see us as living beings. If those people imagine that we are dead, we die.” If Armando is right, then on a moment-to-moment basis the terms of the continued existence of any individual are far more fragile than we dare to feel. And like those of Ocampo’s characters who make it to the end of the story without having been murdered by a thing as simple as a velvet dress, or strangled by a grip as powerful as the eddies of an infernal whirlpool, there’s something to be said for counting yourself lucky to be a survivor of yesterday, today, and maybe even tomorrow.

[1] In an interview with Patricia Klingenberg in March 1980, Ocampo reported that she was denied the National Prize in 1979 by judges who felt her stories were ‘demasiado crueles.’” Quote from Cynthia Duncan, “Double or Nothing in Silvina Ocampo’s ‘La casa de azúcar,’” Chasqui: revista de literatura latinoamericana 20, No. 2 (November 1991).

[2] Silvina Ocampo: Selected Poems, selected and translated by Jason Weiss (New York: NYRB/poets, 2015).

Experimental Champions: Three European Masterworks Worth Reconsidering

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Not many readers are in doubt that more than cold water separates America and the UK from Europe. Rediscovery of three European masterworks of the relatively recent past demonstrates one of the key aspects of this perennial cultural divide-the ability (perhaps freedom) of writers on the Continent to be applauded as experimentalists, while also being championed by the literary establishment. There are very few American or British writers who have managed this feat.

“The rocks do not need my memory or not.”

Man in the Holocene by Max Frisch: We begin with the German-writing Swiss author Max Frisch.  Born in Zurich, the son of an architect, he worked as an architect himself (winning a commission for a major public swimming pool) before a meeting with Bertolt Brecht sparked a change of direction.

Like his countryman Friedrich Dürrenmatt, Frisch initially achieved national and indeed international fame as a dramatist, but today he’s best remembered by English readers as a novelist.  In books such as I’m Not Stiller, Homo Faber and Montauk, he explores his signature themes of the crisis of personal identity, the inescapability of guilt, the possibility of innocence, and the inevitable disintegration of self—or what one reviewer describes as, “The tragedy of the Swiss penchant for precision colliding with the organic chaos of life and love, which it so desperately, secretly seeks.”

His most significant creation, however, may be the finely faceted gem Der Mensch erscheint im Holozän, Man in the Holocene.  Published in its entirety as a piece in The New Yorker (to my mind the most interesting thing they’ve ever done), it was counted by the New York Review of Books as the single most important work of 1980.

In an age of epic fat books frantic to spin out multiple plotlines to demonstrate recommended retail value, we often forget the crystalline beauty of the tight, short novel… the apparently quiet story… the genius of simplicity.  And, in terms of plot, nothing could be simpler than this architecturally refined parable (which I liken to a mutation of James Purdy’s elegiac In a Shallow Grave and the elegant cytoplasmic wisdom of Lewis Thomas’ The Lives of a Cell).

Herr Geiser is an old man (or at least a man who’s old in habits and mind) who lives alone, which is to say in a hermetic state of intimacy with his total detachment from others, in a scenic but socially sterile Swiss valley inundated with rain and threatened with being cut off from all transportation and communication.  So, what does he do to pass the time?  He meticulously categorizes the nuances of the thunder and builds an infantile but intricate pagoda of crisp bread, while taking his scissors to his encyclopedias and reference library, pasting the pages on the walls around him like an externalized inventory of his own brain—the paper thin structure of beliefs his delicate grasp on truth and sanity has been.  These scrapbook images and excerpts are actually reproduced within the text, drawing us deeper into Geiser’s obsessive solipsism, while at the same time, calling us to search with him for our own place in the “grand scheme of things.”

The novel thus has an immediate graphic design interest that rivals anything William Burroughs ever did with his cut-up methods.  But the compulsive, kaleidoscopic anxiety of Geiser has a poignant degenerative end point.  As the storm intensifies, and the valley becomes more remote from the outside world, Geiser’s memory begins to fail.  Eventually, cerebral apoplexy strikes like the lightning outside, and his surgical quantification of data loses all coherence.

What he’s built with his slicings of store bought information is just another kind of crisp bread edifice… a jigsaw shrine of relics of human knowledge, which are supposed to be a tribute to man’s understanding of the world—an expression of security—some platform of factual certainty.  But how fragile this house of cards seems in the barren isolation of age and physical / mental infirmity.  Man in the Holocene, with its exacting line drawings of hypothetical dinosaurs and recitations of empty materialist schoolbook facts, is in the end a clinically lyrical poem about the futile heroism of our cultural narratives of evolution and history.  It’s also, and more importantly, an eloquently forensic portrait of profound personal loneliness and our hopeless dependence on memory to shape experience and to define meaning.  The result is a uniquely compelling fragment—a shred of the much-too-tiny shadow we’re all afraid we cast in time.

(For instructors in the field of 20th century literature, or for book clubs interested in this work, I highly recommend pairing with it Lars Gustafsson’s The Death of a Beekeeper, which is available from New Directions.)

“On the polished wood of the table, the dust has marked the places occupied for a while—for a few hours, several days, minutes, weeks—by small objects subsequently removed, whose outlines are still distinct for some time, a circle, a square, a rectangle, other less simple shapes, some partly overlapping, already blurred or half obliterated as though by a rag.  When the outline is distinct enough to permit the shape to be identified with certainty, it is easy to find the original object again not far away.”

In the Labyrinth by Alain Robbe-Grillet: There was a period (in fact about two decades) when Alain Robbe-Grillet wasn’t only one of the most famous writers in France, but in the whole world.  Born into a family with a technical and scientific background, he trained as a chemical engineer, until like Frisch, he found his true calling, writing Les Gommes (The Erasers).  On the surface, and surface is the key word with this author, The Erasers is a mystery story, where a police agent named Wallas stalks an unknown assassin through a nameless puzzleboard Flemish town—although it may be that like Winnie the Pooh and the Woozle that wasn’t, he’s really tracking himself.  Nothing is certain.  The only thing the reader can be sure of is the laser precise detail in which all that isn’t clear is described, catalogued and analyzed.

Robbe-Grillet would go on to write such works as The Voyeur and Jealousy, along with the script to the notoriously formless avant garde film Last Year at Marienbad (which draws on the haunted novella The Invention of Morel by Adolfo Bioy Casares, referenced tellingly in the television show Lost).

But perhaps his greatest influence was as a scientist of the nouveau roman in For a New Novel:  Essays on Fiction.  It’s here that he articulates his “theory of pure surfaces,” a radical rejection of conventional characterization that emphasizes instead an obsessive phenomenological objectivity.  As Roland Barthes put it, “Imagine the motionless changes of orientation produced by a mirror-image as being somehow decomposed and distributed throughout a certain period of time and you have the art of Alain Robbe-Grillet.”

The impact was powerful in both the world of literature and popular culture.  On national radio, sections of Robbe-Grillet’s seemingly manically fastidious descriptions of apparently banal objects and scenes were recited for humorous effect.  Yet, no one could deny the hypnotic nature of his language or the sincerity of his assault on traditional narration, and its distorting (or revealing) effect on our sense of time and animacy.

I find the best introduction to his work (and therefore his distinctive point of view) to be In the Labyrinth, which picks up on several of the themes as well as the fraught mood of The Erasers.

It’s the story of an anonymous soldier who wanders wearily after a lost battle through a shadowy unnamed city on a mission given to him by a dying friend to deliver a package whose contents he doesn’t know.  Plagued by fever and the imminent arrival of enemy forces, disoriented and alone, the soldier’s confrontation with the maze of the city becomes the structure of the book, and the city takes on a sense of ominous character of its own.

As readers will perceive, there are more than a few echoes of Kafka, Beckett, Camus and Borges…but what distinguishes Robbe-Grillet’s story is his style and vision, with its relentless examination and prosecution of minutiae.  This short, disarmingly seductive novel is a remarkable example of suspense created while defying all its usual mechanisms, and a crispness of prose that crackles and rings while blatantly opposing all the assumed notions of poetic writing.

(I recommend reading Robbe-Grillet in conjunction with Harold Pinter’s early, career-building plays and some of his extremely lucid remarks on his process of writing—a philosophical approach to character and the nature of drama arising from all that is unsaid and only partially seen.  Both writers are published by Grove Press.)

“He does not know any more about the rules of the game than they do, but he feels they are in the process of being born from every one of the players, as on an infinite chessboard between mute opponents, where bishops and queens turn into dolphins and toy satyrs.”

The Winners (Or the Biggest Losers) by Julio Cortázar: Julio Cortázar, the polymath hipster, should’ve won the Nobel Prize in my view, but he was always too cool for school.  Some will argue with me for including this Argentinean author in the European category, and insist on classifying him as part of the Latin American revolution in literature.  I defend my position by pointing out that Cortázar was born in Brussels, spent his early childhood in Switzerland and produced all his major works in Paris, where he finally died.  What’s more, although he wrote about South America, his key influences were surrealism, the nouveau roman, American jazz and Lawrence Durrell—and he was deeply admired in Spain.

Later renowned for the novels Hopscotch, 62: A Model Kit, and the collection of short stories Blow-Up (which inspired the Michelangelo Antonioni film), his first work translated into English was Los Premios (The Winners).

I found this book at a garage sale and I earnestly encourage you, if you don’t know it, not to leave your discovery of it to such random circumstance.  (Although, as the story gives sinister suggestion to, just how random is anything?)

This wasn’t Cortázar’s first novel, but it was his first novel translated into English, and it has some of the sprawling ambition of the young writer.  The amazing thing is the degree of polish and confidence it displays in the face of its own complexity.  To quote from the book’s jacket:  “A luxury cruise ship sets sail from Buenos Aires.  The passengers are a lively and unlikely mix who have all won their trips in a national lottery.  At first the mood is festive.  But all is not well on board the Malcolm.  No one will reveal the boat’s destination; the crew barricades itself behind locked doors in the stern and a looming sense of menace gradually builds to an explosion.”

The Hospital Ship… Das Narrenschiff or the Ship of Fools, has been a staple allegory of Western literature for a long time.  The dramatic potential of a group of strangers in a confined space cut off from the rest of the world is rich.  But Cortázar more than exploits the obvious, and insinuates that which is decidedly not obvious.  Consider this suspiciously graceful remark from not quite the half-way point in the book:  “I don’t think there’s really any joke being played, but that we’re simply the victims of a swindle.  Not just an ordinary swindle of course, but something more…metaphysical, if you don’t mind that awful word.”  Indeed.  The passengers of the Malcolm may not have any choice in the matter.

Just as Frisch’s work captures our contemporary fixation on trivia, and Robbe-Grillet the almost brutally democratic indifference of the camera eye and the paranoia of surveillance, Cortázar shows us the sweepstakes frenzy of reality TV well ahead of his time.  Imagine The Poseidon Adventure written by a first rate mind, or Lost without the grievously disappointing finale… and you have some idea.

(For readers with a musical background, I can’t recommend highly enough some of Cortázar’s journalistic pieces on jazz.  Some of what may seem elusive or obscure in his fiction has an immediate clarity of intent and delivery when seen from this vantage point.)

Summing Up
There are certainly many other European (and world) writers who have managed to earn reputations within the literary establishment while innovatively pushing the boundaries of style and structure.  To some extent my larger point here is that we rather expect this of European authors and do a great deal to inhibit it in Americans.

In singling out the particular (or peculiar) writers above, I don’t mean to elevate their work over others, merely to highlight three decisive, accessible and accomplished novels of exploration that deserve rediscovery.

A Year in Reading: Scott Esposito

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Scott Esposito is the editor of The Quarterly Conversation and the host of the literary blog Conversational Reading. His writing on books has appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, The Philadelphia Inquirer, The Chattahoochee Review, and the Rain Taxi Review of Books, among others.I must begin this with a caveat. As a judge of Three Percent/Open Letter’s translation of the year award, I’m going to be reading some 15 books over the next month. Undoubtedly, some of these books will be among the best books I’ve read this year, so this list will be necessarily lacking some excellent titles. But here are the best books I’ve read in the first 11 months of this year.I started off the year with Tom Jones by Henry Fielding, one of the greatest and most lasting books to come out of the 18th century. It’s an often hilarious, sometimes ribald account of a young, impoverished orphan who falls in love with a woman far above his station. For about 800 pages their love is thwarted by the young lady’s father, and I’m sure everyone can guess the end. Besides being an indispensable step on the novel’s path from the epic to what we would recognize today as “normal” realist fiction, it’s a thoroughly engrossing tale that’s plain fun to read. Fielding’s flowing sentences and sharp irony know no boundaries of time.I can best express my admiration for The Invention of Morel by Adolfo Bioy Casares by saying that I’ve already convinced roughly 20 people (that I’m aware of) to read this book. It’s rare that I evangelize this energetically for a novel, but Morel is the kind of book I want to share. For more about it and Bioy, aka Borges’s best friend, protege, and collaborator, read my essay from The Quarterly Conversation.For a long time Gunter Grass was a large gap in my reading, but now he is one that I have successfully filled – with his mammoth novel The Tin Drum. I can best sum up this book by saying that it is a family saga that I think could only have been written during the 20th century. It is the story of a 29-year-old man who has somehow constrained his growth to the proportions and form of a 3-year-old boy, and he tells the story of his family from his padded room in an asylum in which he drums lucrative, award-winning musical recordings on, what else, his tin drum. Anyone who thinks they know the definition of the word imagination should read The Tin Drum, because they really don’t know what the word means until they see some of the things Grass comes up with in this novel.I really don’t understand why Manuel Puig is not more famous than he is. He’s easily one of the giants of 20th-century Latin American fiction, and his novels are both plotty enough to entertain and deep enough to argue over. Many consider Kiss of the Spiderwoman his masterwork. Anyone wanting to finally find out about one of David Foster Wallace’s favorite novelists, a man who somehow managed to interrogate Lacan’s theories of the mind, homosexuality, feminism, and gender relations via engrossing plots, should start with this novel.Ford Madox Ford is my new favorite neglected author. On the power of his two best novels, he is easily one of the greats of the 20th century, yet few of his 80-some books are available today and he is not often read. It’s too bad. Ford was the founder of The Transatlantic Review, a legendary literary journal that’s partly responsible for Ernest Hemingway’s career. He’s also the author of at least two books that should stand with the greatest novels of the century. The Good Soldier reads like a Kazuo Ishiguro book written by James Joyce. For my money, it’s the best unreliable narrator novel I’ve ever read. Parade’s End is a different beast: a mammoth novel of Britain during World War I that partially looks backward to The Good Soldier but partially looks forward to modernist innovations a la Virginia Woolf.Along with Gunter Grass, Thomas Mann was another major gap in my reading (Death in Venice doesn’t count). I got interested in Doctor Faustus, Mann’s saga of the classical composer Adrian Leverkuhn, when the music critic Alex Ross declared it his favorite book on classical music. Why would someone such as Ross label a work of fiction the best book ever on classical music? The answer is that Mann’s book can teach you at least as much about serial composition and classical music aesthetics as it can about why Germany fell prey to Nazism, the Faust legend, and Adorno’s thoughts on literary theory. Which is to say, a lot. Faustus is a very rigorous read, but it is an incredibly rewarding one, a book that simply shows no weakness whatsoever and sets very high standard. I’m quite tempted to say that out of everything I read this year, this one book stands above them all.Quick, name 5 famous authors from Central America. Okay, name one. For those who had trouble answering, you should find out about Horacio Castellanos Moya’s novel Senselessness. The book is a paranoid, dirty, somewhat pornographic rant by an unbalanced man who has been tricked into the politically controversial and somewhat dangerous job of editing a 1,400-page report on atrocities that occurred during Guatemala’s civil war. (The report is real, and people did die to create it.) But even if Moya had written about a perfectly sedate gentleman who did the laundry, I still think I’d read it, as he writes the best first-person, run-on sentences this side of Carlos Fuentes.Another noteworthy Latino, recommended to me by Moya’s English-language translator, is the Cuban author Alejo Carpentier, whose novel The Lost Steps I enjoyed this year. The novel is something of a modernist search for the great Amazon/Latin American foundational myth, a 300-page Conradian journey from New York City to the farthest reaches of the Amazon river basin. At many points, Carpentier’s descriptions of Latin American cities and natural landscapes are simply awesome – they actually make me feel like I’m back there again.There are also a few greats that I would be remiss in not mentioning, but that hardly need me to introduce them to you. So, instead of begging you to bathe in their glory, I’ll simply list them here and note that they are as good as you’ve been told. They are: 2666 by Roberto Bolano, Within a Budding Grove by Marcel Proust, The Castle by Franz Kafka, The Red and the Black by Stendhal, The Mill on the Floss by George Eliot, and All the Pretty Horses by Cormac McCarthy.More from A Year in Reading 2008

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