This January, I finally read Jean Rhys’s Good Morning, Midnight, a grim and angry novel to begin a grim and angry year. First published in 1939, the frisson of suppressed brutality its narrator encounters everywhere has started to feel claustrophobically familiar now. In some ways, it’s a novel about precariousness — economic, social, psychological, historical — and about its exhausting effects on the human soul. I think Rhys had a special genius for understanding the subtle relationship between her characters’ inner lives and the grinding machinery of world history. It’s a gift I searched for often in my reading this year.
I found it again in Jane Bowles, whose singular novel Two Serious Ladies (1943) I discovered this spring. Written in a kind of flat and gloriously weird prose, the novel loosely follows two women as they throw themselves into destructive crusades against social convention. The private lives of individuals are probably always subject to the public machinations of power, but maybe this is most obvious in periods of historical crisis. At one point in the novel, overhearing a conversation between two young Marxist radicals, the protagonist Miss Goering remarks: “You…are interested in winning a very correct and intelligent fight. I am far more interested in what is making this fight so hard to win.”
Margaret Drabble’s Jerusalem the Golden (1967) is a quiet, intimate novel about friendship, sex, and social class. I read it under beating sun in Porto this summer and it charmed me almost to tears. Featuring a wry, self-aware protagonist, a glamorous cast of secondary characters, and cheerfully staunch leftist politics, it seems to me an unfortunately neglected novel of mid-20th-century Britain, and a forerunner of much of the great feminist fiction that followed.
On the recommendation of a friend, I picked up a copy of Alejandro Zambra’s My Documents (2015, translated by Megan McDowell), a startling and gorgeous collection of short fiction. Zambra’s observations are forensic, his prose is masterfully direct, and his interrogation of form, voice, and identity feels urgent rather than playful. I practically swallowed the book whole. I’m already looking forward to reading the rest of Zambra’s work, starting right now with his new book Multiple Choice (2016).
At one point in Good Morning, Midnight, Rhys’s narrator declares: “I want a long, calm book about people with large incomes — a book like a flat green meadow and the sheep feeding in it.” I confess that I shared this desire often in 2016. I reread not only Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey, but also Pride and Prejudice and Persuasion, as well as Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations. A wealth of writing exists on all these novels and I have nothing insightful to add here, except that they consoled me somewhat while the world descended into catastrophe. Great writing can do more, but sometimes consolation is no small task.
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I read a lot of wonderful books this year, many of them new, and others simply new to me. I loved Amity Gaige’s Schroder, and Victoria Redel’s Make Me Do Things, Roxana Robinson’s Sparta – to name but a few.
But this year was, for me, most profoundly about re-discoveries and re-readings. I wrote an article on Albert Camus which had me, for some months, living again with those books I felt so passionately about when I was young: not just The Stranger, The Plague and The Fall, but also The Myth of Sisyphus, The Rebel, and his earliest writings, the glorious little book of essays Noces, which is essentially a love letter to his native Algeria, and which can be found in English in his Lyrical and Critical Essays.
Then, too, I’ve been writing an introduction for a forthcoming reissue of Jane Bowles’s wonderful only novel, Two Serious Ladies, a book I consider almost my blood relation. I came upon it by chance years ago in college, and felt so strongly about it that I wrote my undergraduate thesis on her work. Her astringent wit, her particular eye, her combination of levity and profound seriousness – Jane Bowles is unlike anybody else. You can read about her all-too-brief life in Millicent Dillon’s fine biography, A Little Original Sin.
In the Venn diagram of the apparently vastly disparate Albert Camus and Jane Bowles, there are more overlaps than you might think (eg North Africa: Algeria for him, Morocco for her), but chief among them is Simone Weil, whom both writers admired and whom Camus championed. So now I’m reading Simone Weil – Waiting for God, to begin with – in order to make sense of why both Camus and Bowles have such significance for me.
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