The Sight of Death: An Experiment in Art Writing

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A Year in Reading: Garth Greenwell

Early in the year, an editor’s comment on an essay draft sent me back to Émile Zola, whom I hadn’t read since graduate school. And I think even then I only read one novel, L’Assommoir, which somehow didn’t make an overwhelming impression. It made one now, and I spent the first couple of months of 2017 reading novel after novel, in a state of real amazement. Zola is an uneven writer, sometimes careless, and he’s a deeply uncongenial writer for me in the attitude of knowingness he takes toward his characters, his sense that contemporary theories of human behavior adequately explain human beings, without any remainder of mystery. This sense of knowingness results, often enough, in an impression of authorial contempt. In his determination to show the social rot in France’s Second Empire, his plots follow the same monotonous course from bad to worse to devastated.

And yet. At his best, Zola gets more reality into his books than any other writer I can think of, and this fidelity to the real—to how laundry is washed and beaten and dried, to how a horse is lowered into a mine—his meticulous, obsessive need to get things right, makes the books absolutely thrilling. And even if his theories deny human mystery, his characters, at least at the books’ finest moments, reclaim it. Nana regarding herself in the mirror, purring like a cat; the anarchist Souvarine stroking a rabbit on his lap; la Mouquette mooning the houses of the rich: these are moments of pure literature, I think, that wondrous excess of behavior and feeling that swamps reductive theory. I was pulled away from Zola, after seven or eight novels, to other projects; I’m itching to get back.

Toward the end of the year, a stray reference in Maggie Nelson’s fascinating The Art of Cruelty finally sent me to a book several friends had enthused about over the years: T.J. Clark’s The Sight of Death. All of my training in the arts has been musical and literary; I’ve always been (I remain) embarrassed of my ignorance regarding visual art, to which my response is sometimes powerful but never informed. The Sight of Death is a remarkable demonstration of what an exquisitely informed eye can see. Over the course of months, during a residency at the Getty museum in L.A., Clark studies two huge landscapes by Nicolas Poussin—studying them not in his usual scholarly, historically-informed way, but simply by looking. This book is the record of what he sees. The gamble of the project is that something about great art really is inexhaustible: that we can return to a great poem or painting or sonata again and again, always finding ourselves newly challenged. The gamble pays off here, and the gorgeous and generous illustrations allow us to participate in Clark’s looking, to see some shadow of what he sees. Seldom have I been more grateful to a book.

Among new books: Frank Bidart’s Half-Light, which collects 50 years of poetry, is for me the book not just of the year but of the decade. Yiyun Li’s devastating, consoling Dear Friend, from My Life I Write to You in Your Life is among the most profound books I’ve ever read about the relationship between life and reading. And finally, two novels that I read in 2017 but that are coming out in 2018: First, Jamie Quatro’s Fire Sermon, out in January, is the best new novel I’ve read in a very long time, a gorgeous and profound interrogation of fidelity of all kinds. And Fatima Farheen Mirza’s A Place for Us, out in June, is far too wise to be a debut novel; I’m not sure I know another book that measures so exactly and compassionately the lines of resentment and love that stitch together a family.

More from A Year in Reading 2017

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A Year in Reading: Parul Sehgal

My professional reading life is fairly regimented — I have to be attentive to new, newsworthy books to assign for review or to write about myself — and my personal reading habits have become suitably random in response, subject to mood as much circumstance, which, this year, meant the purchase of a new coat. Said coat, a voluminous and awful garment — moss green, somehow both pilly and prickly — has, to its credit, pockets like wells. Which meant that I, who do most of my reading on the Q train to and from work, fell in with a group of regular traveling companions. Four books (or rather, 3 and 3/4), whose slenderness was, at first, their chief qualification, took up permanent residence upon my person: a new Picador edition of Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping that’s about the size of a pack of cards; my friend Brenda Shaughnessy’s 2012 collection of poems Our Andromeda, a book I worship; my husband’s high school copy of Macbeth minus an act or two; and Paula Fox’s Desperate Characters.

I read and reread many books in 2015 (my favorite books of the year can be found here and here), but these are the books I kept in orbit, the books I wore out. Desperate Characters, in particular, I couldn’t stop rereading. It’s the type of novel it’s become so fashionable to deride — one of the “quiet” books about middle-aged women staring out of windows, enjoying quiet epiphanies — when it’s really a wallop of a book, a barbed portrait of a marriage, not to mention a brilliant take on gentrification, white fears of black and brown people, the hostile insularity of the nuclear family, and how power reproduces and how power conceals itself. And from time to time, sure, the heroine stares out of a window.

(It occurs to me now that these books are more connected than not — they’re all about paralysis and ambition, about moving through trauma, trying to move past it. Reading choices can seem so random, but aren’t we always just digging deeper and deeper grooves into old obsessions?)

But it was also a year of discoveries — the late Czech novelist Bohumil Hrabal was one, the poet Anne Boyer another — and rediscoveries. I taught a class in criticism, which allowed me to go back and reread a few favorites — The Sight of Looking at Death by T.J. Clark, Zona by Geoff Dyer, Changing My Mind by Zadie Smith, My Poets by Maureen N. McLane, Sontag and Kael: Opposites Attract Me by Craig Seligman.

Most of all I was grateful for the number of writers finding fresh and intelligent ways to think about family life — I’m thinking of recent books like The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson, On Immunity by Eula Biss, Ongoingness by Sarah Manguso, 10:04 by Ben Lerner — but also older books, beloved books I returned to as I wrote about these issues in an essay for Bookforum, including Zami by Audre Lorde, The Salt Eaters by Toni Cade Bambara, The Essential Dykes to Watch Out For by Alison Bechdel. These books position the family not in conflict with creativity but an extension of it, not a way of retreating from our obligations to our communities but a reaffirmation of them. It’s a lovely thought — that what tethers us, burdens us can somehow also set us free — especially to one in a coat bogged down with books, standing on a subway platform too early in the day.

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A Year in Reading: Porochista Khakpour

I am a bit shocked to realize 2014 was the year I loved everything I read. I review books with some frequency and this year I don’t think I gave a single book a negative review — and not because I was feeling particularly giddy about art or life — I simply had the strange fortune of liking what I read. Most all of the books I reviewed this year were books I requested to review and none really disappointed. My highest recommendation out of that group goes to Helen Oyeyemi’s startling and exquisite Boy, Snow, Bird (which will also always hold a special place in my heart for getting both of us on the cover of the NYTBR.) I can also recommend Chang-rae Lee’s stunningly mystifying On Such a Full Sea; Darcey Steinke’s charming, gorgeous Sister Golden Hair; William T. Vollmann’s relentlessly haunting Last Stories. These were books I was paid to read, but frankly would have read anyway.

Out of the all the books I read for pleasure, the standout was Will Chancellor’s debut. He had the misfortune of becoming my friend or else I would have certainly tried to review A Brave Man Seven Storeys Tall. This is what we writers call a BIG BOOK — the ambition here is matched by the talent and Chancellor’s storytelling abilities place him with the best. You’ve go water polo, academia, art world, and myth playing out in locations that span across the globe from Palo Alto to Iceland. And, well, I’m a sucker for father-son epics and novels that at least partially and unabashedly deal in ideas.

Speaking of ideas, two more, books that were unlike anything else: one came from a writer I know well and love wildly, the Chinese avant garde writer Can Xue and her second English-translated novel The Last Lover. I don’t know what to say — it is as ever very hard to piece and probe and dissect and even just arrange in a line, but the pleasure for me of reading her is reading something truly surreal in our time, an era where so many books feel painfully, embarrassingly, appallingly safe. On the other side is someone I’d never read before: T.J. Clark. I’m lucky to know a lot of excellent art historians and a visit to a venerable Midwest art department resulted in my picking up and falling in love with this art historian’s work. His The Sight of Death: An Experiment in Art Writing came out in 2006 and is simply a collection of personal, political, and philosophical musings and meditations on two Nicolas Poussin painting that were hanging in a room in the Getty in 2000. For several hundred pages, this diary where seemingly nothing happens cast a very strong spell over me, and I still don’t know how he did it.

Maybe to some “Novel of Ideas” or “Books of Ideas” sound like critical and commercial death sentences, but they have always been my page-turners, and especially in 2014 and undoubtedly onward. May we not fear concepts, philosophies, themes in a time (all times?) when it feels like our survival depends on it.

More from A Year in Reading 2014

Don’t miss: A Year in Reading 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005

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