In the end, Virginia Woolf went for a walk, filled her pockets with rocks, and waded into the river. After a lifetime of struggling with her mental health, the onset of another depressive episode, in conjunction with the impending war, ultimately defeated her. Since then, women writers across the world have recognized fragments of themselves in her and her work. For my part, growing up in rural Massachusetts, I used to end long winter walks standing at the edge of the pond across the field from the house where I grew up, and the gentle pulse of the water’s surface felt like a promise to take me if I wanted to go.
I didn’t have a connection to Woolf growing up. I was nineteen the summer I first read Mrs. Dalloway, lonely again in my humid hometown. At first pass, I found it dense and perplexing; it was difficult to follow the thread that Woolf masterfully weaves from one character to the next. But I was drawn to her even then, to that breathless style, to life, London, that moment of June.
Perhaps, then, it shouldn’t have come as a surprise when I finally read all of Woolf’s novels and saw myself, not only in suicidal ideation but in literary aesthetic: in that persistent, if sometimes melancholy, optimism that pervades Woolf’s work despite mounting evidence that there is little left to hope for.
This realization came in my senior year of college, when I elected to put an end to my embarrassing lack of knowledge about one of history’s most prominent women writers by taking a senior thesis seminar on Woolf. Led by notable writer and Woolf scholar Mary Gordon, we read 10 books and two personal essays by Woolf, each student producing a 30-page thesis on the writer’s oeuvre.
I came to the class as something of a lapsed postmodernist. I’d taken a course in the literary school a few semesters prior and had only recently grown disillusioned with its tenets, the nihilistic rejection of reality and truth that filled me first with existential dread, then a numbing emptiness as I tried to apply it to my own writing. Reading Woolf with this lens, I found her work to present a thorough criticism of the ideas that would characterize postmodernism after her death. It wasn’t just that Woolf was a modernist, embodying the reassertion of reason against a growing alienation that individuals felt in response to advancing industrialization—this modernist aesthetic sets her up in obvious opposition to postmodernism, given that the latter movement grew out of a rejection of their modernist predecessors. Woolf’s work goes beyond this simplistic dichotomy, acknowledging and considering at great length the ideas that would later become postmodernism, but ultimately turning away from them in favor of what Woolf seems to consider the essential truth of being human. That is, the idea that while people’s true selves are masked beneath layers of constructed identities—making meaningful connection almost entirely impossible—the point of life, the beauty in it, is to continue to search for a glimpse at that true self below the surface. For Woolf, this is what makes life worth it all.
This aesthetic appears initially in Woolf’s first novel, The Voyage Out. Rachel Vinrace, the novel’s young leading lady, pushes against the boundaries of society, unable to conform to the polite expectations set for her. Her entrance into “proper” society midway through the book dovetails with her eventual death, with Rachel falling ill and never recovering soon after getting engaged. Once Rachel attains marriage, “the right thing, the only thing, the solution required by everyone she knew,” she is literally destroyed. In this way, Woolf seems to argue that the arbitrary structures of society do a sort of violence to individuals, taking away their agency in favor of fitting in with what is “proper.” This echoes the nihilist reaction to society that would come to characterize postmodernism after Woolf’s death.
However, an undercurrent of optimism flows through the novel. After Rachel dies, a thunderstorm hits, and the societal conventions that everyone adhered to throughout the book fall quite suddenly away. The otherwise relentlessly proper Mrs. Flushing asks her friends if they fear dying, and they all respond in turn. Unlike earlier in the book, when people would pointedly shy away from asking personal questions, the characters begin to say real, meaningful things. Rachel’s senseless death forces them to be more than they are; to create meaning, to communicate. While the spell breaks as the storm fades, Woolf is not pessimistic about the fact that meaning is only momentary. Rather, she notes the beauty in the fact that, despite this heartbreaking, meaningless death, the other characters go on living, as if to point out that there is something valuable in the going-on-ness of life. Even though meaning only comes in flashes, like lightning, people do not grow disillusioned in the face of the fact that they spend most of their lives stumbling around in the dark. One must push through these difficulties—that is, from a contemporary lens, push through postmodern solipsism—for the hope of momentary clarity. It is worth it for these moments.
In fact, beyond simply arguing for the existence of moments of clarity amidst the stilted performance of English society, Woolf seems to argue that these barriers preventing us from accessing this clarity are the only things that keep us alive. In The Voyage Out, Rachel finds herself paralyzed when she begins to consider the “unspeakable queerness” of life, which she considers “only a light passing over the surface and vanishing.” Through this paralysis, we see how it is destructive to think about the immense and desolate fact of human existence. In this way, while the barriers put up by the conscious presentation of society do serve the destructive end of making it impossible for people to really communicate with one another, these barriers also serve the very constructive end of making it possible to do anything at all. If one thinks too much about how, like Rachel, a person can die merely by forgetting to wash their vegetables before eating them, it becomes impossible to continue. This is why, as with lightning, clarity can only exist in moments. After any more than an instant, the absolute vulnerability of humans to the most absurd things becomes unbearable to consider. In Woolf’s formulation, the best we can hope for is to glimpse clarity in fragments. Any more would destroy us.
These ideas pervade all of Woolf’s novels. In Night and Day, she remarks that “to see the truth is our great chance in this world.” One of the novel’s heroines, Katharine, continually invokes Dostoyevsky, repeating, “It’s life that matters, nothing but life—the process of discovering—the everlasting and perpetual process, not the discovery itself at all.” In The Years, it’s the distant bombing of the war heard during a quiet English tea. In To the Lighthouse, Woolf re-emphasizes the beauty in the dogged going-on-ness of life, showing how even in the face of tremendous tragedy life continues as it did before simply because it must. The house is restored. Lily Briscoe returns to her painting. They finally sail towards the titular lighthouse, despite the deaths of Mrs. Ramsay, Prue, and Andrew.
Woolf is unquestionably a modernist, and the easy assumption would be to say that she has, as she might put it, “nothing whatever” to do with postmodernism as a school. Given that she died before postmodernism could begin to take hold, one might argue that her optimism has no purchase as a critique of contemporary postmodernism, and that to pose such a critique risks anachronism. But this argument falls apart under the weight of The Waves, that fluid and experimental work that firmly established Woolf not only as an extraordinary novelist but as an intensely conceptual writer fiercely pushing the boundaries of her craft.
Told in six soliloquies that ebb and break against each other, The Waves explicitly references numerous major tenets of what would become postmodernism without losing Woolf’s steadfast optimism. The character of Bernard destabilizes the strong sense of self inherent in many modernist texts, declaring, “To be myself…I need the illumination of other people’s eyes, and therefore cannot be entirely sure what is my self.” He goes further, pointing out a whole host of ideas that would later characterize the postmodern movement: the flimsy nature of socially constructed reality, the instability of language, the dubiousness of concrete knowledge. Woolf writes:
There is no stability in this world. Who is to say what meaning there is in anything? Who is to foretell the flight of a word? It is a balloon that sails over tree-tops. To speak of knowledge is futile. All is experiment and adventure. We are for ever mixing ourselves with unknown quantities. What is to come? I know not. But as I put down my glass I remember: I am engaged to be married. I am to dine with my friends tonight. I am Bernard, myself.
Throughout the passage, Bernard seems to be falling away from that optimism that carried Woolf throughout her literary career. Then, the word “but” in the middle. Despite all these grand questions, Bernard is able to situate himself in relation to his position in society. In this way, Bernard represents the point that Woolf makes again and again throughout her career: While nothing is perfect, it is all we have. While society is constructed, it is the only way that Bernard has to relate to the world, and that must be worth something. It must be worth fighting for. If not to keep it the same, then to salvage it, to turn it into something to hope for, rather than the postmodern alternative of nothing at all. As Bernard states, “Is this the utmost you can do? Then we have triumphed. You have done your utmost.”
Woolf’s relationship to postmodernism becomes more compelling when put in context with major critiques that postmodernists raised against modernism. In large part, literary criticism in Woolf’s time was dominated by men like Clive Bell, Joseph Frank, David Lodge, and John Barth. According to Patricia Waugh, a leading specialist in modern and postmodern literature, in her book Feminine Fictions, works by women were marginalized and misinterpreted by these critics. In Waugh’s formulation, fiction written by male modernists was characterized by splitting, fragmentation, and atomization of the story and of the self. In contrast, women’s writing at this time had more to do with dissolution and mergence. According to Waugh, this is because women were traditionally positioned as “other,” so the desire to become subjects overpowered the postmodern desire to deconstruct themselves. Rather, these women sought to experience their selves as strong and coherent while also acknowledging the socially constructed aspects of their identities. Thus, reading these women writers, including Woolf, with the lens of male modernists and critics would misrepresent their aims and concerns.
Furthermore, these women were not only misunderstood or overlooked in their time period, but formulations of modernism continue to misunderstand women like Woolf today. For example, Adam Kelly invokes modernism in his essay “David Foster Wallace and the New Sincerity in American Fiction,” setting up modernist sincerity in contrast with his idea of the New Sincerity, a burgeoning school of post-postmodernism. Kelly asserts that the modernist aesthetic was characterized by “impersonality,” but he exclusively cites male authors such as Joyce and Eliot to prove his point. It would certainly be strange to describe Woolf’s persistent search for meaningful connections between people as anything approaching impersonal, so one might think she was left out of Kelly’s formulation, destabilizing his arguments surrounding postmodernism and New Sincerity.
What does all this indicate? Given that postmodernism grew out of mainstream critiques of modernism, and given that these critiques generally did not focus on the work being done by women writers, the very existence of the school of postmodernism becomes suspect, because it appears to exclude women writers and writers of color. Woolf’s oeuvre is proof of this gaping oversight. While the world is in many ways more equitable than it was when Woolf was writing—at the very least, women can now enter the library at Cambridge without a male companion, unlike in A Room of One’s Own–the literary world remains troublingly gendered.
Ruth Franklin discusses this gendering in her article “Why the Literary Landscape Continues to Disadvantage Women.” According to VIDA, and advocacy organization for women in literary arts, in 2013 The New York Review of Books reviewed 636 books by men and only 164 by women. Franklin notes how even today women writers struggle to be seen as writing about anything other than women, while male narratives continue to be considered universal. This echoes the sentiment Woolf expressed almost a century ago in A Room of One’s Own. She writes:
Yet it is the masculine values that prevail. Speaking crudely, football and sport are “important”; the worship of fashion, the buying of clothes “trivial.” And these values are inevitably transferred from life to fiction. This is an important book, the critic assumes, because it deals with war. This is an insignificant book because it deals with the feelings of women in a drawing-room. A scene in a battle-field is more important than a scene in a shop—everywhere and much more subtly the difference of value persists.
If literary problems from 1929 that a prominent woman writer like Woolf considered at length still remain unsolved today, it seems fair to say that our contemporary literary schools developed out of a deliberate exclusion of women writers. This indicates that postmodernism is not only passé, but, in fact, that parts of postmodernism were never going to be useful for a progressive society. This is because postmodernism began as a movement by white men critiquing previous work by white men, never pausing to look outside of themselves to consider if people of other genders or races might have something interesting to contribute. Woolf’s contradictory relationship to postmodern tenets is proof that she, and likely others, were overlooked.
This isn’t to say that the entire project of postmodernism was useless. It did its work in exposing the arbitrary nature of many, if not most, aspects of our lives. It questioned our assumptions, our values, asked if we knew where things began and then asked us to look again. But for all its good, postmodernism has been ripping a hole in the literary fabric by failing to address this gendered critique, dragging the tapestry down as it overstays its welcome.
For my part, I think there’s nothing left to be gained from this irony, this solipsism, the extinguishing emptiness of the postmodern world. In a world where violence and hate speech are skyrocketing perhaps in part due to this rampant postmodern depersonalization, maybe what we need is not more explorations of how meaningless everything is, but a radical reassertion of that meaning, the kind of hope that kept Woolf alive.
It was the war that ultimately killed Virginia. She had been deeply unsettled by the First World War, and her diaries and letters indicate a growing sense of dread as the Second World War advanced in the last years of her life. While we’re not on the obvious brink of a world war now, it feels similarly easy to despair at advancing right-wing populism across the globe. But having grown up in postmodernism’s grasp, I would rather write towards hope, that truth that Woolf considered our great chance in this world.
In order to be productive, post-postmodern fiction must let go of the solipsistic irony borne out of exclusionary white male narratives. These post-postmodern works must allow writers of all perspectives to dismantle societal narratives and structures like a postmodernist. At the same time, such works must illuminate unseen spaces in literature, like Woolf called for in A Room of One’s Own, and they must resist postmodernism by remaining optimistic and unironic in the process. Drawing on Waugh, these writers must seek to understand their (whole) self in terms of problematic social structures rather than denying the existence of the self because of these structures.
We are never going to see the world or ourselves with complete objectivity, nor should we have to. The intrinsic failure of objectivity should not be taken as cause for despair, because this despair then masks the simple beauty that keeps us alive, as Woolf argued. That humans are fallible is part of what makes us endearing to each other. Woolf writes in Jacob’s Room, “In any case life is but a procession of shadows, and God knows why it is that we embrace them so eagerly, and see them depart with such anguish, being shadows.” It is merely because, “Such is the manner of our seeing. Such the conditions of our love.”
Image credit: Flickr/Laura Miller.
It could be this Love Actually earworm that afflicts me this time of year, but I’m feeling love in my fingers, my toes and my year-in-reading list. And since love is supposedly a universal language, the following highlights are eros-themed works in translation.
When we first see the titular governesses in Anne Serre’s The Governesses (translated from the French by Mark Hutchinson), they have unbuttoned their blouses to combat the heat: “Even in a state of semi-undress, they’re a model of discretion, as smooth-skinned as infants fresh from the tub.” Set on the country estate of a well-heeled family, the novel generates its energy from this sense of decorous abandonment. The three women are less traditional caretakers than “mistresses of games and pleasures,” pleasures that include the occasional bout of murderous Bacchic frenzy: “This one will be tackled head-on, licked, bitten and devoured in a ladylike manner,” we read of one stranger lured onto the estate. (The governesses are great with the children, though.) The novella, Apollonian in its composition, pays homage to the Dionysian wellspring of life.
Over in Italy, Paolo Volponi’s The Javelin Thrower (translation by Richard Dixon) begins with a traumatic scene: a young child sees his mommy kissing not Santa Claus but a fascist officer. The officer is never seen without his gleaming silver dagger dangling from his belt; he even brings it to his trysts, highlighting the combination of virility and violence extolled by Il Duce. The boy soon reaches for a phallic object of his own, taking up the javelin, where under the tutelage of the officer he excels. Nonetheless, his beautiful mother’s adulterous liaison predictably haunts the child, and as we follow him through his adolescence and early adulthood, his sexual education, and view of women, is colored by the revulsion, shame and fascination of those spied upon encounters.
Whereas The Javelin Thrower is a slow burn of a novel, Elsa Morante’s Arturo’s Island, newly translated by Ann Goldstein, bursts with fervor. Arturo is a creature of excess—excessive in his self-reliance, fantasy-life, intensity of emotions and bravado. Left largely to look after himself on a small island off the coast of Naples while his father roams, he alternately desires and disdains his new stepmother, only a few years older than he is. His father seems more interested in the fate of a male convict held on the island’s penitentiary. Both stepmother and prisoner are rivals for his father’s affection and their mere existence gnaws at the ardent Arturo, prone as he is to “opposing and intertwined jealousies, the many-sided passions, that were to mark [his] destiny.”
Next on our Italian tour is Vitaliano Brancati’s The Beautiful Antonio (trans. Patrick Creagh), whose Sicilian, Adonis-like protagonist inspires outsized lusts his diminished libido can’t satisfy: “There’s a dead man in the midst of your life,” Antonio explains of his impotence, “a corpse so placed that whatever move you make you’re bound to brush up against it, against its cold, fetid skin.” His innocent wife eventually discovers that there is more to marriage than “chaste and fraternal embraces,” leading to an annulment and anguish that seems to be felt more keenly by Antonio’s father than himself. “…at his age he ought to be lifting rocks without using his hands…He died, my son, he died. I had a son, but he died.”
Like The Javelin Thrower, The Beautiful Antonio is set in Fascist Italy, and behind the comic depictions of masculinity lies a darker statement about the allure of potency. When Antonio’s elderly uncle, who returns to a bombed-out Catania from a concentration camp to find his nephew still stewing in self-pity, he loses it:
For anyone in any other country it would have been a piddling little mishap. But for us? Oh, we have to make a Greek tragedy of it! Because all we can think of is the one little thing, and that’s it! In the meanwhile along comes a despotic gangster. One kick in the pants from him and we go flying into this war…
If these Italian novels—especially Volponi’s and Morante’s—have an overwrought intensity, Christina Hesselholdt’s deploys a cooler, more ironic approach to human passion. “We are still miserable, and again we are rambling in the realm of a powerful love,” says one of the six narrators of Christina Hesselholdt’s mosaical Companions while visiting Haworth Moor (Bronte country) with her husband. A few pages later, we find ourselves in less romantic climes, a German strip club, and in the hands of another, equally well-read narrator: “Ohhh, the human, oh-so Zizekian need to make sense of thing where none exists,” she muses while analyzing her surroundings. In this literate novel—inspired by the multi-perspective structures of Virginia Woolf’s The Waves and Lawrence Durrell’s The Alexandria Quartet—chronicles a group of Danish friends approaching middle-age. Translated by Paul Russell Garrett, Companions is a fascinating story about friends, lovers, and the pleasures and perils of intimacy.
Happy holidays, boun Natale, joyeux Noel, glædelig jul!
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It is an innocent train ride, full of the banal chatter we save for our post-work hours, until my coworker Marthine pulls out her phone and shows me a video of her laughing son. At what she calls the “sweet spot,” those tender months between squalling and teething, Arun (whose name refers to the dawn in Sanskrit) glimpses himself in the mirror and chortles, drool pooling between his lips and chin. He is as smitten with himself as the world is with him. He observes himself; he loves what he sees. We observe him; we love what we see.
There is a portion at the end of Belle Boggs’s The Art of Waiting in which, as she’s holding her infant at home, a mason says, “Imagine if there was only one baby in the whole world…Wherever that baby was, we’d put down our things and go see it.” “You’re right,” she says. “I’d go.” At 26, newly struck with baby fever, I would be there in line, craning my neck to behold.
I can’t point to the moment that it started, and yet it accrues every day, the inverse of my bank account. The way I accuse men of thinking with their penises, I’ve begun thinking with my ovaries — sidelined by tiny outfits, ogling at babies on Instagram, indulging vague daydreams about pregnancy clothes worn with wide-brimmed straw hats. I am an unfit mother: a smoker, a shopper, a too-frequent cheese eater, and bill forgetter. I inhabit (with my husband) a tiny one-bedroom in the most expensive city in the country, where we can barely afford our square footage. I’ve over-drafted my bank account buying cat food. I’ve celebrated the arrival of my period in college with cake and champagne, bought anxiety-inducing pregnancy tests at the pharmacy with nail polish and cheap beer. And yet; and yet.
“It’s spring when I realize I may never have children,” Boggs opens the first chapter, this forthrightness setting a precedent for the rest of the memoir. The Art of Waiting delves directly into the process of assisted reproductive technology (ART) in all its pre- and mis-conceptions, its prose like a sledgehammer cracking through drywall. She probes beyond the clinical terminology and atmosphere of the doctor’s office and takes as her subjects cicadas and gorillas, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, Joan Didion’s Blue Nights, and Raising Arizona. She sees motherhood everywhere, like I do: it’s inescapable, especially because we do not have it.
In a book that could easily become insular, instead the reader finds Boggs’s considered, holistic approach, wherein she covers families of numerous formations and facets — different races, socioeconomic categories, and world views pepper this intelligent and insightful treatise on fertility, medicine, and motherhood, which spans years of Boggs’s life and years of research on childbearing, its successes, and its failures. Science meets narrative; the global meets the personal; the reader meets the author, or at least feels that way, a knowing closeness that builds with every revelation and dispersal of personal, painful fact. The world of reproduction is hardly beautiful, with its sanitized wands, needles, and oocytes, and yet we’re privy to it, as if standing next to the stirrups.
We’re privy, too, to stories that vary dramatically from Boggs’s. There are her mentors, professors, and friends who choose to forgo children in favor of careers and lives of artistry. There is Virginia Woolf, who writes, feeling euphoric after completing The Waves, “Children are nothing to this.” There are gay couples facing rampant discrimination. There are her friends who adopt from overseas, and face the harrowing knowledge that their black child will live an entirely different life in their mountain community because of the color of his skin, the story of his origins.
Perhaps the most important lesson that The Art of Waiting imparted was its insistence on the long game; that the things worth wanting are worth waiting for, and that impatience is a tax we pay for arriving at our fateful conclusions. There’s a decided sense of fatedness about the entire book, a necessary corollary for a treatise on building a family. Who are we meant to be, and in relation to whom? Is a struggle with infertility a sign that we’re meant to walk a different path? Is resisting the body’s futility an act of bullheadedness, foolhardy? Boggs, who describes herself as non-religious, persists, questioning every phase of intrauterine insemination (IUI), the consideration of adoption, and eventually of in-vitro fertilization (IVF). The result is ultimately a baby — Beatrice — but the question lingers, essential to the book: if we’re always in the process of becoming, what are we meant to become? What if that end isn’t the one we had in mind?
Boggs aptly describes the arduousness of ART without writing an arduous narrative — she spares no detail, be it negotiating insurance coverage with a cut-rate pharmacy or injecting herself with one of many medicines each cycle. These details never become drudgery. They’re an inherent and interesting part of the narrative of modern pregnancy. It’s easy to forget, amidst the deftness of Boggs’s prose, that this book depicts a clinical process.
The experience of child-rearing, of adoption, of infertility, impacts more than just the person at their center, despite the feelings of isolation they bring about. Mr. Cheek, the aforementioned mason, embodies this knowledge. “He knew something bigger, more profound,” Boggs writes. “Each baby is born not just to her parents, but to the world surrounding her. To neighbors, friends, teachers, enclosure mates. To ex-cons and allomothers and cousins and grandmothers, who will each want a peek and will each have some impact.” The same could be said of unintended childlessness; in the void created by such powerful wanting, whole communities are implicated.
I pass babies in their carriages on my street and sometimes we lock eyes, as if my desire is transparent. Round-headed and wide-eyed, taking in the new world, they take me in, and I take them in right back, pining for something I’m too sacrilegious or jaded to call a miracle. Meanwhile, I care for my cats. I love my husband. I yearn, and I scheme, and I imagine what fate will deal me next year, or the year after that. In the present, I am only a collection of wants, imagining what it’s like to shape the destiny of a tiny, malleable being.
“Keep trying. Be content. How do you reconcile those two messages?” Boggs writes in her epilogue. She has no exact answers; this is not a textbook. Rather, it’s a primer on waiting and wanting, something we’re arguably always doing, whether it’s for the end of the workday or whatever missing piece we feel might complete us, for whatever unknowable reasons. We’re waiting for the world to adapt, to accept all forms of family; for our bumbling bodies to perform as we wish; for fate to unfurl like a carpet, its threads and fibers as intricately, tightly woven as our own desires.
Reading Virginia Woolf—whether you can, whether the reading is excruciating or transporting—is about finding your sea legs. Woolf’s prose sets you adrift in other minds, their unfamiliar eddies of fear, desire, and despair, their private emotional rhythms and associations. You have to surrender yourself to Woolf, let yourself be swept along—sometimes bemused, sometimes moved, sometimes uncomprehending—in the tides of other consciousnesses. All this is true in Mrs. Dalloway as well, but To the Lighthouse intensifies these effects: it spans a decade instead of a day; it permeates so many minds and moves between them so fluidly, so swiftly. It’s easy to lose track of whose mind you’re listening to, whose words you’re hearing, who’s being spoken about. But in this is also something ghostly and god-like: you drift, as if disembodied, into the minds of others, through the rooms of the Ramsay family’s summer house on the Isle of Skye; you hear snatches of conversation from the drawing room, wisps of another conversation on the lawn. The plot of the novel, such as it is, is diffuse and amorphous; By the standards of most 18th and 19th century novels, it’s not really a plot at all. In the novel’s famous second section, “Time Passes,” you are quite literally watching weeds and rabbits overtake the garden.
Woolf’s writing can feel disconcerting, confusing, and frustrating; It can also seem numinous, exquisite, utterly absorbing. For myself, I have found that Woolf is not an author I can will my way though. There are times when I find her stream-of-consciousness techniques coy, contrived, pointlessly difficult and comprehension-thwarting—when I find the lack of a substantial plot unbearable. Then, I find myself of Cyril Connolly’s opinion that Woolf, “seemed to have the worst defect of the Mandarin style, the ability to spin cocoons of language out of nothing.”
At other times, the drifting, liquid rhythms of Woolf’s prose, her approximation of the currents of the psychic seascape, feel intuitively right, more natural and true than anything else I’ve read, and I find myself of Connolly’s mind again: “The Waves,” he wrote in The Enemies of Promise, “is one of the books which comes nearest to stating the mystery of life, and so, in a sense, nearest to solving it.”
More Difficult Books
For me, 2009 was the year of Europe Central – not so much because I would wind up reading, in late November, William T. Vollmann’s large novel of that name, but because a couple of chance encounters back in January (Bohumil Hrabal’s I Served the King of England and Jonathan Littell’s The Kindly Ones (reviewed here)) set me on a path toward it. In the intervening months, I found myself traipsing back and forth between literary Berlin and literary Moscow and losing myself in the territories in between.
My very favorite of the books I encountered during these peregrinations – indeed, the best book I read all year – was A Book of Memories, by the Hungarian master Péter Nádas. A glib way of describing this indescribable novel would be to say that it is to postmodernism what The Magic Mountain is to modernism – rigorous, comprehensive…a classic. However, the author who kept coming to mind as I read was Harold Brodkey. Nádas’ psychological and phenomenological insights are, like those of Brodkey’s stories, microscopically acute. Formally, however, A Book of Memories offers more excitement. The novel unfolds like a game of three-card monte, giving us several narrators whose gradual convergence seems to encompass the entire aesthetic and political history of Central Europe in the 20th Century.
A close second would have to be The Foundation Pit, by the early-Soviet-era writer Andrey Platonov. This slim novel reckons the cost of the Stalinist industrial program, but in the process reveals an ecstatic vision of the human soul. I agree with Edwin Frank of NYRB Classics: Platonov’s voice is as arresting as Kafka’s. It is also tender, and weirdly touching. And Platonov inspired me to read (finally) Life and Fate, the sweeping World War II saga by his good friend Vasily Grossman. This novel, like some of Platonov’s work, was suppressed by Soviet censors, and as a consequence was never properly edited. That shows, I think, in the sketchiness of some of the book’s secondary characters and plots. But at its frequent best – in its depiction of German death camps; in its attention to the trials of Viktor Shtrum and his family; and in an early, haunting letter from Viktor’s mother – Life and Fate approaches the depth of its models, Tolstoy and Chekhov.
The two finest works of nonfiction I read this year, by contrast, had a distinctly American flavor: Gay Talese’s Thy Neighbor’s Wife and Edie, a riveting oral history of Edie Sedgwick, edited by Jean Stein. Each is in the neighborhood of 500 pages, but reads with the propulsion of an intellectual whodunit. Taken together, they create a panorama of the transformative years between World War II and Vietnam, whose upheavals we’re still living down today. Come for the titillation; stay for the education.
Amid these longer works, it was a relief to have poetry collections to dip into. My favorites were Frederick Seidel’s Ooga-Booga and John Berryman’s The Dream Songs, both of which I wrote about here. (On second thought, where these two poets are concerned, maybe relief isn’t quite the right word.) Similarly, a couple of coffeetable books offered piecemeal inspiration. Air : 24 Hours, a remarkable monograph on/interview with the painter Jennifer Bartlett, is freshly minted MacArthur Genius Deborah Eisenberg’s My Dinner With Andre. I also heartily recommend Up is Up, But So is Down, an anthology of Downtown New York literature from the 1970s and 1980s. Reproductions of flyers and zines adorn this volume, expertly compiled by Brandon Stosuy. Come for the images; stay for the writing.
A couple of other novels I loved this year were Saul Bellow’s Humboldt’s Gift and Virginia Woolf’s The Waves. Each, in my read, unraveled at the end, and so didn’t quite stand with Nádas (or Herzog, or Mrs. Dalloway). But each reached rare pinnacles of perception and beauty, and I’m always pleased to spend time in the company of these writers.
The best new books I read were Jonathan Lethem’s Chronic City and Ingo Schulze’s New Lives. One of the first things people notice about Lethem is his skylarking prose, but in this most recent novel, a note of deeper irony (the kind born of pain; one wants to call it European, or maybe Bellovian) disciplines the sentences. I look forward to seeing where Lethem goes next. The East German setting of New Lives, and its uroboric epistolary structure – starting late in the story, slowly filling in the background – made for slow going at first, but the ethical intensity of its restaging of Faust has haunted me since I read it.
And then there was Europe Central, about which more anon. I’m not sure I can recommend it, anymore than I was sure I could recommend Joseph McElroy’s Women and Men last year. I haven’t even decided if I think Europe Central is a good book. But it swallowed me by slow degrees, and hasn’t quite let go.
There are many, many more amazing books I’d like to write about here: Janet Malcolm’s book on Chekhov; McElroy’s Lookout Cartridge; Rabbit Redux, Running Dog, Dog Soldiers; The Book of Daniel, Daniel Deronda… In fact, looking forward to “A Year in Reading” has begun to exert a formal pressure on my reading list, encouraging me to bypass the ephemeral in search of books I might passionately recommend. Fully half of what I read this year blew my mind, and I look forward to some future “Year in Reading” entry when I have 52 masterpieces to endorse. Imagine: one great book a week. For now, though, mindful that your hunger to read a 10,000 word post about what I read is probably even less keen than mine is to write it, I’ll leave you with these titles, and wishes for great reading in 2010.