It’s slightly embarrassing to have to admit that the best book you read all year was Anna Karenina. It’s a bit like saying that you’ve been listening to an album called Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club by these Beatles kids out of Liverpool and that, yes, you can confidently reveal that they were definitely onto something. At the risk of redundancy, Anna Karenina (which I finally got around to reading this year) is pretty much the Platonic ideal of the great novel. The most astounding thing about it for me is Tolstoy’s seemingly infinite compassion for his characters. It’s almost inhuman how fully present he makes these people. Reading it, I kept thinking of that much-quoted bit of Stephen Dedalus bluster about how “the artist, like the God of creation, remains within or behind or beyond or above his handiwork, invisible, refined out of existence, indifferent, paring his fingernails.” There is something god-like about the simultaneous breadth and intensity of Tolstoy’s vision here, but there’s nothing remote or indifferent about it. I don’t think I’ve ever read a book where so many characters are portrayed with such clarity and empathy. He didn’t seem to create characters for instrumental reasons; no one is there just to bring the plot forward or to create a situation for someone more central than themselves. If he introduces a character, he also makes you see the world from their point of view (even Levin’s dog Laska has her moment in the free indirect narrative spotlight). His compassion and clarity are such that I often found myself thinking that if God existed and had sat down to write a novel, this is what it would look like. So yes, this Lev Tolstoy kid out of Yasnaya Polyana is definitely one to watch. You heard it here first.
As for less canonically enshrined books, I read two very powerful works of fiction in 2011 dealing with the theme of suicide. The first was David Vann’s Legend of a Suicide, a collection of linked stories and a novella. Here, Vann approaches the central biographical fact of his own father’s suicide from a range of fictional starting points. The novella, “Sukkwan Island,” is one of the most harrowing and moving pieces of fiction I’ve read in a very long time. In it, Vann inverts the reality of his father’s death, staging a hostile takeover of fact on behalf of fiction. It’s a really extraordinary piece of writing, and it takes the reader to a harsh and terrifying place. If you want to remind yourself of how literature can be a matter of life and death, this is a book you need to read.
Edouard Levé’s novel Suicide, which I wrote about for The Millions back in July, also really shook me up. As I mentioned in that piece, it’s nearly impossible to separate a reading of this book from the knowledge that Levé took his own life within a few days of having completed it. But on its own terms, its a bleak and beautiful exploration of self-alienation, marked by a sustained mood of quiet despair. The fact that it is written entirely in the second person — the subject of the narrative, with whose suicide the novel opens, is only ever referred to as “you” — forces the reader into a strangely schizoid position. Levé’s “you” addresses itself at once to the first, second, and third persons, and so the distinctions between author, protagonist, and reader become unsettlingly nebulous. Take a number of deep breaths, read it in one sitting, and go for a long walk afterwards. (As great as both Vann’s and Levé’s books are, by the way, I wouldn’t recommend reading them back-to-back in any kind of double bill.)
Along with everyone else in the world, it seems, I fell pretty hard for Geoff Dyer this year. I had a great time with Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi, and I’ve since gone on an extended binge. Right now, I’m reading But Beautiful, his book about jazz, and Working the Room, his recent collection of essays and reviews. (Yoga for People Who Can’t Be Bothered to Do It and Out of Sheer Rage are lined up and ready to go.) I’m pretty sure no author since Proust has spun so much great material out of pastries — what Dyer doesn’t see fit to tell us about cappuccinos, doughnuts, and croissants isn’t worth knowing. I’m not sure whether we actually need a Laureate of Elevenses, but if we do, this is our guy. Dyer is one of those people who could bang out a book on just about any subject and it would be more or less guaranteed to be interesting.
The same could be said for Nicholson Baker, whose House of Holes had a higher guffaw-to-page ratio than any other book I read this year. It’s ridiculously, euphorically filthy and yet strangely innocent, in a way that seems to me to be unique to Baker. But House of Holes is not really about sex, any more than The Mezzanine was about office work or Room Temperature was about child rearing. Sex provides a useful and fertile pretext for exercising what seems to me to be the animating principal of all his fiction: the absurd and fantastic possibilities of language itself. But don’t, for God’s sake, read it on public transport, or in the presence of anyone to whom you wouldn’t be willing to explain the cause of your snickering.
The novel that I really fell in love with this year, though, was Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead. She writes prose as beautifully as any living writer in English, but what makes her work so special is that its beauty seems to emanate as much from a moral as an aesthetic sensibility. I read Gilead not long after I saw Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life, and I was struck by the similarities between these two works of art. Both Robinson’s exquisite sentences and Malick’s stunning visual compositions are animated by a sense of wonder at the beauty, strangeness and sadness of the world. They are both religious artists, and they each confront metaphysical themes, but what comes across most strongly in both works is their creators’ amazing ability to capture and heighten the beauty of everyday things. Robison does with her sentences, in other words, what Malick does with his camera. Reading this book reminded me of something Updike once said about Nabokov — that he “writes prose the only way it should be written, that is, ecstatically.” In this passage, the dying narrator, the Rev. John Ames, recalls a simple vision of the beauty of water:
There was a young couple strolling along half a block ahead of me. The sun had come up brilliantly after a heavy rain, and the trees were glistening and very wet. On some impulse, plain exuberance, I suppose, the fellow jumped up and caught hold of a branch, and a storm of luminous water came pouring down on the two of them, and they laughed and took off running, the girl sweeping water off her hair and her dress as if she were a little bit disgusted, but she wasn’t. It was a beautiful thing to see, like something from a myth. I don’t know why I thought of that now, except perhaps because it is easy to believe in such moments that water was made primarily for blessing, and only secondarily for growing vegetables or doing the wash. I wish I had paid more attention to it. My list of regrets may seem unusual, but who can know that they are, really. This is an interesting planet. It deserves all the attention you can give it.
If you haven’t turned into James Wood by the time you reach the end of that passage, there’s no hope for you. (Go on, let it out: “How fine that is!”) It’s extremely difficult to pull off something that simple, and I can’t think of many other novelists with the skill to do it. Marilynne Robinson’s writing is like water, like the world: it’s a blessing, and it deserves all the attention you can give it.
I read some great non-fiction this year, too. John D’Agata’s book About a Mountain is a lot of things at once. It’s a journalistic account of the almost literally unthinkable effects of nuclear waste. It’s an obliquely impressionistic depiction of the city of Las Vegas. And it’s an attempt to imaginatively reconstruct the suicide of a teenager. I didn’t always like the book, and its not by any means an unqualified triumph, but I certainly admired it. It’s a reminder of the Montaignian origins of the word “essay” (which we get from the French word for “trial” or “attempt”). The essay, at its best, is an open-ended, explorative form, and D’Agata is an exciting example of what a gifted writer can do with it. I also read Between Parentheses, the collection of Roberto Bolaño’s essays, reviews and speeches published this year by New Directions. I wrote about it for the second issue of Stonecutter (a wonderfully old school paper and ink literary journal whose first issue was itself one of the highlights of my reading year) and relished every sentence. Among its numberless pleasures is this quintessentially Bolañoesque definition of great writing: “So what is top-notch writing? The same thing it’s always been: the ability to sprint along the edge of the precipice: to one side the bottomless abyss and to the other the faces you love, the smiling faces you love, and books and friends and food, and the ability to accept what you find, even though it may be heavier than the stones over the graves of all the dead writers.” Almost every book that I loved over the last year satisfied this definition in some way. As, I’m sure, will every book I love in the next.
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If the average person who cares about such things were asked to choose a greatest American film critic, but for some outliers stumping for Andrew Sarris, Roger Ebert, or (if particularly nettlesome) James Agee, they would generally go with Pauline Kael. She wielded criticism like a weapon and praise like a benediction. She flouted the received wisdoms of the day and demanded that while the great arthouse auteurs receive their due, so too should those skilled practitioners of the lower orders of cinema. Kael won the National Book Award and inspired a mini-legion of fellow movie-crazed critics who came of age during the great flowering of that American art form and tried to keep its flames burning, even when the culture as a whole moved on to other loves.
The Library of America’s sturdy, wondrous compilation The Age of Movies: Selected Writings of Pauline Kael makes a solid argument for Kael being this great American critic. If nothing else, the volume contains an improbably rich trove of not just her loves and hates, but also those ill-advised championings, which any decent critic must take a flyer on from time to time (how did anyone ever think Brian De Palma was that good?). Spanning 1965 to 1990, the volume holds many sparkling radio essays she delivered over the East Bay airwaves and had reprinted in places like Film Quarterly before heading east, and a wealth of reviews from magazines, especially from her residency at The New Yorker, where she opined from 1967 to 1991. The full range of Kael’s smarts, vision, wit, prejudices, and downright cruelty are on full, wicked display.
Kael’s writing holds up so many years later — even if the films she’s writing about have not — in part because of her zest for the fight, for the engagement. In an age like our own, critics of note have in the main been exiled to media’s fringes, where they can safely carry on schismatic battles of choice about Wong Kar-Wai or Terrence Malick on specialist blogs. Those writers still holding the bully pulpit in the Arts section of major newspapers or magazines can get worn down by the need to not annoy their readers and just deliver a few zingers, a plot synopsis, and a star rating. Kael’s ability to bridge the high and the low, to write about the grungiest of genre flicks with the same acuity she brought to an art-house extravagance and being equally merciless to both, is one that’s in sadly short supply today.
There is her humor, an area in which only possibly The New Yorker’s Anthony Lane can be currently seen as a competitor. It’s hard to imagine a better put-down than her response to Raging Bull (and this coming from a critic who had cheered the greatness of Mean Streets):
I know I’m supposed to be responding to a powerful, ironic realism, but I just feel trapped. Jake says, “You dumb f—k,” and Joey says, “You dumb f—k,” and they repeat it and repeat it. And I think, What am I doing here watching these two dumb f—ks?
What also makes Kael’s writings still sting and sing today is something even more basic, nestled like a germ inside her barbs. She was, more often than not, just plain right, particularly when sparring with fellow reviewers who fell in awe before the latest manufactured classic. In his introduction to The Age of Movies, editor Sanford Schwartz notes that as memorable as her jokes were “Kael’s little torpedoes of common sense, perceptions that could lodge in a reader’s mind.” This was generally truer of her slash-and-burn pieces than her arias of praise.
Oh, the things she did to West Side Story. It is difficult to describe what a clean and refreshing breath of air it is (even for a fan of the film) to read a critic like Kael coming at that work in 1961 when it was just another movie on the marquee, before it had been encrusted in decades of accolades and revivals. But in her West Side Story broadside (like many of the better pieces here, collected in her 1965 whipcrack of a book, I Lost it at the Movies), she shoots hole after hole in its pretentions of realism and its jazzy insistence of modern relevance. From the basic story (“first you take Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet and remove all that cumbersome poetry”) to the dancing (“it’s trying so hard to be great it isn’t even good”) and the heroine (“[Metropolis’s robot] named the false Maria … had more spontaneity than Natalie Wood’s Maria”).
On the flip side of this is the joy that comes with reading Kael’s delighted take on Jules and Jim, also before it had been safely sanctioned as a classic. The idea of a moviegoer like her just coming across a sweet ray of cinematic sunshine at random in between all her other screenings is hard to comprehend. Here, like in many of her writings from the 1960s, Kael spends as much time jousting with other critics as she does with the film itself. Knocking The New Republic’s staid Stanley Kauffmann (a favorite target) for saying that François Roland Truffaut had no purpose for making the film, she fires back: “Truffaut, the most youthfully alive and abundant of all the major film directors, needs a reason for making movies about as much as Picasso needs a reason for picking up a brush or a lump of clay.”
Like most of those who end up embodying a particular establishment, Kael started out as an outsider. Born in 1919, she was a San Francisco area native who ran a Berkeley repertory house in the later 1950s while raising a daughter as a single mother. The voice that enabled her to collect her writings into I Lost It At the Movies and get her a sinecure at The New Yorker was fierce in its cinephilic distrust of what goodie-goodies thought people should see. She could be swept away but generally preferred light to meaningful. Nothing irritated her more than portentousness or lesson-giving. But she could be just as dismissive of brutally cynical downers like The French Connection as she was of airy and ponderous uplifting epics like Dances with Wolves.
When Schwartz writes about reading Kael “clearing the air of academic systems of grading movies,” he’s vividly depicting the insouciant air of rebelliousness that allowed her to write a classic long-form piece like “Trash, Art, and the Movies.” In this 1969 Harper’s essay, Kael lays down one of the greatest definitions of true movie-love:
The romance of movies is not just in those stories and those people on the screen but in the adolescent dream of meeting others who feel as you do about what you’ve seen. You do meet them, of course, and you know each other at once because you talk less about good movies than about what you love in bad movies.
This idea of movie-love being a community of talkers and arguers is lost in Kael’s later writing. Some would argue that the falling-off that comes in the latter chapters of The Age of Movies might have something to do with the decline in American film. It has to be said that concluding with reviews of 1989’s Casualties of War (while not nearly as bad as its detractors would have it, the film doesn’t deserve Kael’s hosannas of praise) and 1990’s The Grifters (a middling film, at best) is a letdown.
What is really missing in Kael’s leaner pieces from the 1980s is her connection with the society as a whole. So often in her writings of the 1960s and ’70s was the feeling that that weren’t just reviews but larger pulse-takings of society and culture. She lost that knack of the great statement, like her indelible line from “Trash…” which defines movies as “a tawdry corrupt art for a tawdry, corrupt world.” Possibly that had to do with film losing its place at the center of American society. Films of today like The Tree of Life or Black Swan that would have once sent cinephiles into the aisles to duke it out with brass knuckles now barely rate a peep from the larger culture. When Kael stopped writing with that great sweep, her work was no less good, but it was certainly less necessary — perhaps the same could be said of film, especially American film, as a whole.
The Age of Movies isn’t the definitive Pauline Kael collection, that honor must still go to 1996’s For Keeps, the 1300-page doorstopper whose great length allows it to include a long selection from her magnificent book on Citizen Kane. At 864 pages, this new collection will serve just fine, but when it comes to Pauline Kael, the great American film critic, quantity just brings more quality.