The Real Life of Sebastian Knight

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Chain of Fate: On Gaito Gazdanov’s The Spectre of Alexander Wolf


“Those few seconds it takes to terminate a person’s life comprise the idea of an incredible, almost superhuman, power.” This idea is the obsession of the nameless narrator of Gaito Gazdanov’s mesmerizing novel, The Spectre of Alexander Wolf. Yet what is superhuman in the ability to kill a person? With a gun it’s exceedingly simple; ordinary humans do it every day. Gazdanov’s narrator has done it — once. He was 16 years old, and a soldier in the Russian Civil War.

This opening scene is tinged with surreality, primarily because the young narrator is so bleary with sleep-deprivation. The blurred background of gunfire could be any war, the “scorched grass” and “hot, drowsy haze” could be almost any country. The narrator leans against a tree to rest and finds himself alone, separated from his troop. He comes across a black horse and mounts it, and they gallop off down the road before a crack of rifle fire brings them crashing to the dust. Unhurt, the narrator stands and dazedly watches a rider on a white horse approach from down the road, shouldering a rifle. “It was so quiet I could distinctly make out the dry sobbing of hooves against the cracked earth, the horse’s heavy breathing…” Without really thinking, the narrator raises his revolver and fires. The rider falls. The numbed narrator walks to him. “Bubbles of pink foam frothed up and burst on his lips. He opened his dull eyes, said nothing, and closed them again.”

It’s a commonplace wartime killing, senseless and sudden, and no one’s fault in particular. Yet for years after, the narrator cannot fully rid himself of the feeling of guilty regret. By the time he’s a grown man, an émigré living in Paris, he has nearly managed to forget the episode. Then he comes into possession of a collection of short stories by an English author, Alexander Wolf, rather ominously titled I’ll Come Tomorrow. In the last story, “The Adventure in the Steppe,” he finds an eerily exact reproduction of the murder from the perspective of the rider he had supposedly killed. As if in a mirror he looks up from the ground into his own “commonplace, ugly little face that expressed nothing other than manifest fatigue.” He sees himself mount the great white mare and gallop away.

“There remained little doubt,” the narrator says, “that the author of the story really was the same pale stranger whom I’d shot.”

Gaito Gazdanov was born in St. Petersburg in 1903, and like his narrator participated in “the exhausting senselessness of the Civil War” when he was 16. He was evacuated to Gallipoli, moved to Constantinople, before arriving in Paris along with many other Russian émigrés, Vladimir Nabokov famously among them. Gazdanov worked in the Citroen factory, and then later as a taxi driver (“there were thousands of them [Russians] plying that fool’s trade in Paris,” Humbert Humbert snidely remarks). Gazdanov drove at night and attended lectures and wrote during the day. Gradually he began to publish pieces in Russian journals and infiltrate the Parisian literary scene. The Spectre of Alexander Wolf was written in 1947, and like many quiet masterpieces it fell unfairly into obscurity for many decades — until now, elegantly translated by Bryan Karetnyk and beautifully republished by Pushkin Press.

Gazdanov’s writing career — nine celebrated psychological crime novels — was one which the nameless narrator of Alexander Wolf might have envied. This narrator has literary aspirations but settles for the more practical and less taxing field of journalism. His life thus far, he claims, is loaded with “regrets, dissatisfaction and a sense of manifest futility of everything I did.” His desire to meet Alexander Wolf, author of I’ll Come Tomorrow, is composed partly of curiosity about this ghost of the man he swore he had killed, and partly of jealous wonder at the ex-soldier’s skill with a pen, his “taut, flawless rhythm.”

By chance — or its opposite, one of the many mechanisms of fate grinding its gears behind the scenes — the narrator meets one of his countrymen in a local Russian restaurant in Paris. Voznesensky is a drunkard and “something of a Don Juan,” who begins regaling our narrator with anecdotes of war and love. With a casual inevitability that attends all the book’s intersections, Voznesensky produces a book, which the narrator recognizes at once: I’ll Come Tomorrow. It is revealed that Voznesensky and Alexander “Sasha” Wolf were comrades in the Civil War. Pressing the drunk raconteur for details, the narrator is rewarded by yet another version of that hot, awful afternoon, this time told from the vantage of the rider whose approaching clatter made him mount the white mare and gallop away. Voznesensky found Wolf in the road, “coughing up blood and foam,” and took him to a hospital.

Gazdanov is brilliant at tracing the unexpected twists of life’s forking paths, the interconnectedness of his various characters. A mysterious seductress sways into the novel at a boxing match our narrator is covering for a newspaper. Yelena Nikolayevna is another Russian émigré, with an icy, languid loveliness; their meeting has a tingle of déjà vu, as though they had known each other before. “‘They say that’s a very dark omen,’” the narrator suggests. Indeed, it is. The love affair is a welcome distraction from his obsession with Alexander Wolf, and his own morbid navel gazing. But as Wolf will say later on, “Every love affair is an attempt to thwart fate.” And fate, the narrator suspects, cannot easily be thwarted. He can feel a chill reaching up from Yelena’s past, the shiver of a former lover who had marked her life forever.

Ineluctably, one day Yelena begins to speak of this man. He was charming, erudite, acute, and doomed, obsessed with his own impending death. His fatalism was apparent in everything he said: “‘Every life becomes clear — its path, its twists and turns — only in its final moments.’” To illustrate the point he recounted a story of a poor Jewish boy who dreamed of becoming a tailor, who strived through war and hardship; upon finally receiving his first order as a tailor, he died of pneumonia. “‘It was a race towards death…Finally, when his dream comes true, it turns out that its very realization heralds his own death, towards which he’s been striving all this time.’”

Yelena Nikolayevna escaped this lover’s dangerous, entrancing clutches. But we know who this man is, even if our narrator feigns ignorance. It’s a short matter of time before he emerges at last. The narrator enters his local Russian restaurant and there is Alexander Wolf dining with Voznesensky. Wolf’s face is hauntingly familiar, handsome and disturbing, bearing “an obscure expression, some sort of deathly significance — a look that seemed entirely impossible on the face of any living man.”

This is because Alexander Wolf is not truly alive. He is a spectre, who is certain he knows what awaits him. “I am sure,” he later tells the narrator, “that I’ll die just like that — suddenly and violently, in much that same way as when we first met.”

The question implicit in Gazdanov’s fascinating novel is whether such macabre determinism is self-perpetuated or inalterably woven into the fabric of our existence. Does believing we are doomed to die in a particular way bring about that very end — or do we believe it because we know in our prescient soul it’s the inexorable truth? “‘It isn’t fatalism, it’s the direction of life,’” Wolf explains to Yelena. Yet this is cyclical philosophy. For if the direction of a life is illuminated by its end, then its winding path has offered merely the illusion of forking possibilities. There was only the one, fated way. In which case, is it a fallacy to speak of points of origin, crucial links where the chain of causality actually began? The narrator cannot help but wonder:

It would seem as though a whole world had sprung into existence from a single action of mine. Assuming the origin of this long chain of events was my outstretched hand holding a revolver and the bullet that pierced Wolf’s chest, then in this brief space of time…a complex process was born, which could be neither foreseen nor accounted for by any human mind possessed of even the most powerful, grotesque imagination.

Yet if the “complex process” extends forwards then it reaches backwards, as well, in which case there is no origin. There is only an unending chain. Except that a chain implies singularity, when in actuality all lives are interconnected into the weft of continuous time.

One is reminded of Nabokov’s novel The Real Life of Sebastian Knight, the first the great Russian wrote in English. His character Sebastian Knight fled from Russia during the Civil War and wrote his novels in English like Alexander Wolf (who explains Voznesensky, “it’s more profitable to do it in English, it’s better paid”). After Sebastian Knight’s death, his half-brother turns literary detective and tracks down the details of his sibling’s life and downfall. He comes at last to this lovely, if wistful, realization: “The hereafter may be the full ability of consciously living in any chosen soul, in any number of souls, all of them unconscious of their interchangeable burden. Thus…I am Sebastian, or Sebastian is I, or perhaps we both are someone whom neither of us knows.”

Gazdanov’s narrator does not reach such a tranquil conclusion. But the novel’s violent, exciting climax has a similar, circular quality, a return to the source. A final confrontation between the narrator and Wolf is inevitable. The two men are aching to reenact their fateful first encounter, as if they wish to test the limits of the baleful hypothesis that figures as the subtext of their existence. That is, the man who manages to subvert causality by killing another “is given the opportunity to become, for some short space of time, more powerful than fate and chance, earthquake and tempest, and to know the exact moment when he’ll put a stop to that long and complex evolution…Love, hatred, fear, regret, remorse, will, passion…all is helpless before the momentary power of murder.”

This applies equally well to suicide. And herein lies the supposed “superhuman power” of the murderer, and the self-destructor. This power, however, is fallacious. Any chain of fate will have anticipated this abortive link as clearly as any “natural” death. The power of murder, in the end, is nothing more or less than the ability to discontinue life, which, as Wolf unexpectedly proclaims, is “the sole thing whose value we can truly comprehend.”

The Spectre of Alexander Wolf is a compulsive read, playful yet sinister, meandering yet impressively trim, old-world and modern. It is to Pushkin Press’s great credit that this gorgeously restored relic, from an age when books could be spectral and slip elusively through your fingers, has been revived from untimely oblivion.

Biographers Cannot Be Choosers: On The Biographical Drive

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James Boswell begins his famous life of Samuel Johnson by quoting his subject’s opinion “that every man’s life may be best written by himself.” Saul Bellow would demur. In Mark Harris’s biography manqué, Drumlin Woodchuck, Bellow goes on record that were he to write his own life, “There would be nothing much to say except that I have been unbearably busy ever since I was circumcised.” For such cases, the literary biographer is indispensable. If nothing else, he can add significant nuance to some reticent authors’ productive post-circumcision careers.

Novelists tend to be repulsed by and attracted to the literary biographer, who is both kindred spirit and antagonist, reviver and executioner, exalted Boswell, and the “lice of literature” (to quote Philip Roth from Exit Ghost). The literary biographer is a novelistic double whose diligent quest to flesh out a life mirrors the novelist’s “savage snooping calling itself literature” (again, Exit Ghost); he is also a monstrous interloper whose obsessive search for real-life parallels threaten the sanctity of the work of art, which in a world legislated by poets would be free from the insights — facile or penetrating, doggedly literal of irresponsibly speculative — of biographical criticism.

In her recent study of Philip Roth, Claudia Roth Pierpont notes the antagonistic stance of the famous writer in Exit Ghost as he “confronts a subject that had attached to his later years as inevitably and about as pleasantly as death: biography.” In that novel, Nathan Zuckerman is accosted by a young man, Richard Kliman, seeking to write a biography that will reveal a sensational secret about Zuckerman’s under-appreciated literary hero, E.I. Lonoff. Suspicious of what he calls this “rehabilitation by disgrace,” Zuckerman vows to combat Kliman and become “[t]he biographer’s enemy. The biographer’s obstacle.”

Roth portrays the “rampaging would-be biographer” in conspicuously virile terms; the hulking Kliman has the “tactless severity of vital male youth,” a youth and potency felt all the more by Zuckerman, who has been rendered impotent and incontinent by a prostate operation. But more often, fictional literary biographers are feckless ciphers pestering their elders for details long since forgotten. As noted by Penelope Lively in According to Mark, the “obsessive shadowing of another man’s life was one of the more bizarre ways to spend one’s own,” and such obsessive shadowing leaves little room for the cultivation of a forceful personality. A case in point is the self-effacing narrating biographer of Vladimir Nabokov’s The Real Life of Sebastian Knight: “As the reader may have noticed, I have tried to put into this book as little of my own self as possible.”

As the biographer becomes inextricably linked with his subject and surrenders his personality to what Roth calls the “insane rapaciousness of the biographical drive,” Nabokovian elements flourish: doublings, masks, farce, and meddlesome shades. This is an essay about how that drive manifests itself in fiction.

The “biographical drive”: to Eros and Thanatos is added a third (Boswellos? Biografietrieb?) that combines elements of love and death. The ideal literary biography is a creative, exploratory, and near-amorous engagement with an author’s life and work, a dance of “rhythmical interlacements” (Sebastian Knight). But the biography is also an elegiac, foreclosing, and (metaphorically) fatal document: “‘It’s a second death. It puts another stop to a life by casting it in concrete for all time,’” complains Lonoff’s widow.

In Kingsley Amis’s The Biographer’s Moustache, a young literary man on the make identifies a novelist “due for revival,” a term that speaks to the contrary impulses of the “biographical drive.”  This “revival” breathes new life into a subject even as it provides him or her with an epitaph; a new life that also seeks to be definitive, that is, conclusive. Sebastian Knight’s narrator considers it his task to “animate” his deceased half-brother; by contrast, Bellow expresses his fear that “‘biography is for the man who is finished…I’m not finished, not done, not fini. I’m still groping.”

At its most basic level, the literary biographer novel plots the compulsion to ward off future intrusions of a “gossipy form,” as A.S. Byatt calls it in The Biographer’s Tale. Novelists expel their anxiety by satirizing those in thrall to the biographical drive, even deriving a small measure of sadistic satisfaction at turning the merciless biographer’s gaze back on himself. And thus in a series of satires, Nabokov’s The Real Life of Sebastian Knight, Lively’s According to Mark, Amis’s The Biographer’s Moustache, Nancy Mitford’s Christmas Pudding, and to a lesser extent Alan Hollinghurst’s The Stranger’s Child (though that novel’s dominant tone is elegiac rather than satiric), the biographer himself is dissected, sometimes good-naturedly, sometimes stingingly. (Hollingurst’s biographer is of the latter variety, a “fantasist” and conniver who is subjected to a series of small humiliations and rebuffs all the while convincing himself that his presence is welcome.)

Apart from its defensive aspect, the literary biographer plot seizes on the messiness of the endeavor: the struggle between a biographer’s passive surrender to another writer and the intrusive combativeness of a biographical reading; the necessary critical distance from and equally necessary absorption in the subject; the literal-mindedness of a researcher looking for parallels between real and fictional worlds; and that researcher’s fanciful or creative reconstructions.

The airiest work in this tradition is Mitford’s Christmas Pudding. A humorless young man of rather “weak” character, Paul Fotheringay pens a deeply felt sentimental novel, only to have the public view it as an uproariously funny satire. Branded as a comic author, he turns to the high seriousness of biography. Now to find a subject:
It would be hard, in fact, to find exactly what he wanted, which was a woman of breeding, culture and some talent, living towards the last half of the nineteenth century, who was not already the subject of a “life.”
Comic logic being what it is, Paul soon finds a poetess, Lady Maria Bobbin, who precisely matches this description and also happens to be his “affinity” and “ideal heroine.” Hatching a plan to gain access to her diaries by disguising himself as a school tutor, Paul embarks on the biography, which he deems an “ideal medium for self-expression.”

Mitford means this as a joke, but like most jokes there is an element of truth in it: Lady Maria Bobbin is as insipid and as unintentionally hilarious as Paul is. Her diaries mix mawkish tributes to her infirm dog (“As I write poor Ivanhoe lies at my feet. Dear faithful beast…how dreary, how different this house will seem without the feeble, friendly wag of his old weatherbeaten tail…”) with reminders to chide the cooking staff for disappointing her gourmand husband, who eventually dies from chronic over-eating. Lady Bobbin is a subject as convenient for the picky biographer as she is revealing about him. Both she and Paul strive for pathos and so remain mired in comedy.

The comedy in The Biographer’s Moustache is darker. A young, mustachioed literary man, Gordon Scott-Thompson, determines that Jimmie Fane, an older, snobbish novelist with a slew of ex-wives, is due for a biographical treatment. (This despite being a “frightful old arse-creeper of the nobility,” a “toffy-nosed old twit,” and a “massive and multifarious shit.”) The aged roué sees the “irreducible gap in [their] respective social groupings” as a means to experiment on his middle-class biographer — possibly even goading him into an affair with his wife, which gives new meaning to the phrase “unprecedented access.”

The ensuing war between biographer and subject, sometimes passive aggressive, sometimes outright aggressive, involves a skirmish over whether or not to shave the titular moustache, an overdetermined symbol that brushes up against class, sex, and the biographer’s urge towards self-concealment.

An equally adversarial relationship is found in Penelope Lively’s According to Mark, in which the biographer comes to believe that his subject is “meddling in and manipulating the lives of others from beyond the grave.” Adhering to Bellow’s definition of biography as “a specter viewed by a specter,” Lively playfully gestures towards the ghost story, as does Nabokov in his similarly haunted tale, The Real Life of Sebastian Knight. “Blundering biographer” though he is, Nabokov’s narrator, V., is buoyed by the “secret knowledge” that his half-brother’s shade is trying to be “helpful,” guiding him along a “private labyrinth” which V. is half following and half constructing himself.

Sebastian Knight, Russian émigré and playful English novelist, is a particularly friendly ghost, “laughing alive in five volumes” and looking down on his half-brother’s investigations into his curtailed life with amusement. Though he has up till then written “one or two chance English translations required by a motor-firm,” V. nonetheless resolves to write Sebastian’s biography in his brother’s adopted English language, the first in a series of attempts to mimic his subject.

Predictably, Nabokov smuggles the most into the literary biographer plot. Sebastian Knight is a Künstlerroman; family drama; treatise on exile and national identity; parody of detective fiction; benign ghost story; aesthetic tract; “biographie romancée;” critical exegesis; and a very funny account of professional rivalry and the narrator’s “clumsy efforts to track down a ghost.” As these strands converge, the distinction between biographer and subject ultimately disappears: “I cannot get out of my part: Sebastian’s mask clings to my face.”

Stuffed as it is with games, the novel is not without feeling. Like Sebastian, Nabokov “use[s] parody as a kind of springboard for leaping into the highest region of serious emotion.” V.’s quest is motivated in part by nagging guilt: “Why had I kept away from him so stubbornly, when he was the man I admired most of all men?” Part of the answer is revealed in a disarmingly candid revelation near novel’s end. Opting to take a train rather than buy a plane ticket to attend his brother’s death-bed — an economy which makes him miss Sebastian’s passing — the narrator explains: “I took the cheapest opportunity, as I usually do in life.” Nabokov’s biographer-clown must make this damning and affecting confession of emotional, artistic, and spiritual stinginess before fully losing himself in his new persona.

Alan Hollinghurst is hardly Nabokovian in style, but The Stranger’s Child is as shade-haunted as Sebastian Knight. Hollinghurst’s novel illuminates the erotic aspect of the biographer-subject relationship, the sensual thrill of coming into contact with any trace — marmoreal, photographic, or graphical — of one’s subject. Paul Bryan, the biographer, is actually “turned on” when he first sees a statue of his subject, Cecil Vance, a “first-rate example of the second-rate poet who enters into common consciousness more deeply than many greater masters,” and comes to recognize Cecil’s handwriting as if it were that of a lover.

The Stranger’s Child begins with the erotic immediacy Hollinghust does so well — depicting a burst of sexual and creative energy as the satyr-like Vance, seducing men and women alike, descends upon a family before the First World War. In the late 1970’s, Paul embarks on a life of the poet at a time when “outing gay writers was all the rage.” Hollinghurst reverses the standard investigative process of literary detective stories. He presents us first with the full splendor of the novelist’s feast — Vance’s “mad sodomitical past” as depicted in detail during the opening section — then shows how biographers labor mightily to gather up the meager scraps.

Nonfiction accounts of the biographical drive are arguably more dramatically charged than fictional ones. Paul Theroux’s Sir Vidia’s Shadow is the more sensational narrative of embitterment, but Mark Harris’s earlier Drumlin Woodchuck is a quiet marvel that is at once a sneakily incisive critical study of Bellow and a ruefully comic portrait of the artist as would-be biographer. In Drumlin Woodchuck, the novelist Harris recounts sacrificing his friendship with Saul Bellow to pursue his biographical ambitions. The memoir is a paean to Bellow even as it mercilessly chronicles his endless “woodchuck” tricks, that is, his skill for evasion, beginning with Bellow’s refusal to acknowledge a letter in which Harris announces his plans to write his friend’s life. (The title refers to a Robert Frost poem, the wily creature of which is never without an unobstructed path to safety: “I can sit forth exposed to attack / As one who shrewdly pretends / That he and the world are friends.”)

By his own admission, Harris comes off worse than his resistant subject. Arriving in Chicago (a “very big meadow”) and unable to find Bellow (“an experienced woodchuck”), Harris tracks his quarry to a steakhouse, where he has him paged; he impersonates him on the phone to his three-year-old son; insinuates himself with Bellow’s wife, from whom he has just separated; and fantasizes about having his subject cornered in jail, where he will be forced to answer his questions definitively.

Many scenes take place in cars — Bellow chauffeuring Harris, Harris chauffeuring Bellow, Harris speeding toward Bellow, Bellow speeding away from Harris — which is to say that Harris’s memoir literalizes pleasures and perils of the biographical drive. Of one night out in Chicago: “Well, this was more like it. This was it — riding along with my biographee. Things were at last going right. Off to a party together, talking, rambling around from topic to topic, joking, gossiping, interrupting one another with opinions, expressing prejudices.” Bellow soon ditches him.

“Biographers,” a friend tells Harris, “cannot be choosers.” The remark refers to the biographer’s duty to avoid becoming disillusioned with his subject at the first discovery of a moral blemish, but the epigram also captures the sense of irresistible compulsion in the visceral attraction that spurs a fellow writer to examine another’s life so assiduously. These subjects alter their biographers, influence them, toy with them, or absorb them. It is a game of possession, to echo the title of A.S. Byatt’s famous novel of literary detection. But if literary biographers are possessed by their subjects, they also possess their subjects in turn. As Nabokov beautifully puts it, “any soul may be yours, if you find and follow its undulations.”

A Year in Reading: Ed Park

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Earlier this year, my friend Dave Tompkins emailed me with “a random Nabokov-related question.” (How did he know that that is my favorite kind of question?) There was a passage he was trying to find, “from either a Nabokov short story, or possibly Lolita,” concerning telephone poles. “He’s on a train, or in a car, and notices the succession of telephone poles he passes, seemingly being repeatedly knocked back — or down — by the window frame,” Dave wrote. “Does this ring a bell?”

I remembered the image, something we’ve all witnessed, but that only Nabokov thought to hammer — beautifully, emphatically — into prose. I couldn’t recall where it appeared. Pnin? Sebastian Knight? (Lots of train travel in both.) Dave wrote again the next day: “So i sat in Book Court and scanned Lolita for an hour. No telephone poles there! Must be in the [short stories]. I’ll keep at it.” A little later, Speak, Memory swam into my mind, and I emailed Dave the good news that our quarry had been located. (It turns out they are telegraph poles.)

I liked that Dave would remember that image, enough to want to track it down. And I loved when, months later, I started reading Antoine Wilson’s Panorama City, and found this patch on p. 36. Tall, innocent Oppen Porter is leaving his hometown after the death of his father and heading by bus to the titular city, where he will live under the care of his aunt.
I missed my bicycle already, bicycle travel was the perfect speed, traveling at this speed was pointless, you missed everything. But then I figured that if I was going to be a man of the world, I should learn to appreciate other modes of transport, I should give the bus a fair shake, and so I opened my eyes and I opened my mind and I saw something I never would have noticed on a bicycle unless I was going very, very fast down a very long hill. Because of the speed of the bus and how I was exerting no effort, the telephone wires on the side of the road, sagging between poles, went up and down with the same rhythm as my heartbeat.
Crushes: Joe Meno’s Office Girl, Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl; Don Lee’s The Collective (an alternate universe in which the main characters are all Asian American artists); Alison Bechdel’s Are You My Mother? and Anouk Ricard’s Anna & Froga; Sarah Manguso’s The Guardians (memoir) and Jane Yeh’s The Ninjas (poetry). New credo is line from Yeh’s “Sherlock Holmes on the Trail of the Abominable Snowman”: “O tempura, O monkeys.”

I was afraid to even open John Connolly and Declan Burke’s Books to Die For: The World’s Greatest Mystery Writers on the World’s Greatest Mystery Novels, because don’t I have enough to read already? But there was an essay from Bill Pronzini, which I had to read — Pronzini was one of the earliest champions of Harry Stephen Keeler. I’m glad I took his recommendation and downloaded Elliott Chaze’s Black Wings Has My Angel (1953), a dose of pure noir, packed with humor and jolts and darkly elegant writing. Two scenes are seared into my memory — but this is a spoiler-free space. Please read and we’ll compare notes.

Two stories by David Gordon, “We Happy Few” (Five Chapters) and “Man-Boob Summer” (Paris Review) — pure pleasure.

Online: Mary-Kim Arnold’s Tumblr (formerly known as We Pitched a Tent at Night), is a lyric essay unfolding in real time. Title of the year: “Finishing Bluets in a Strip Mall Gym in Livonia, NY.” And I loved Rob Horning’s gonzo dissection (in The New Inquiry) of a transcendentally abysmal Van Morrison album cover. Horning writes: “It’s like [Morrison] is daring his audience to listen to it. The message seems to be: ‘See how indifferent I am to the surface things of this world? I put out my music with this on the cover. That’s how far I have moved beyond petty commercial posturing. Fuck you, here’s a rainbow.’ ”

Devin McKinney’s The Man Who Saw a Ghost: The Life and Work of Henry Fonda and Dylan Hicks’s Boarded Windows. (I suppose I think of them in the same breath because their names begin with the same letter and they are both soft-spoken Midwesterners.) I didn’t think I cared as much about Fonda as I do about the Beatles (the subject of McKinney’s previous book, Magic Circles), but McKinney made me pay attention. This is biography as poetical, political essay. Boarded Windows is a self-assured debut that comes with a sort-of soundtrack, Dylan Hicks Sings Bolling Greene, which you should listen to right now. “Thank You For Your Postcard” is a perfect short story, constrained by what can fit on a 3×5 piece of decorated cardboard: “Later on the soles of our shoes/Were white with Tuileries dust/Thank you for your postcard/I read it on the bus.”

More from A Year in Reading 2012

Don’t miss: A Year in Reading 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005

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