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Books I Wish I Wrote: On Writerly Jealousy

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I am a jealous person — jealous of the vacations I see on Instagram, of my sister’s perfect hair, of the latte the man next to me just ordered — but it took me a long time to realize I was a jealous reader and writer. In fact, I didn’t know that literature was something I could be envious of until I read Marina Keegan’s The Opposite of Loneliness. There, in the last essay of the collection, a piece titled “Song for the Special,” Keegan addresses her “unthinkable jealousies.” “Why didn’t I think to rewrite Mrs. Dalloway? I should have thought to chronicle a schizophrenic ballerina,” she writes. “It’s inexcusable.”

Like Keegan, I was angry that Michael Cunningham thought to rewrite Mrs. Dalloway first — The Hours should have been mine! Come to think of it, “Song for the Special” should have been mine! And it spread from there.

I’m jealous of ridiculous things: of Little Women, and of the original Mrs. Dalloway, if it comes down to it, and of Alice in Wonderland and of Walden. I’m jealous of Atonement and of Housekeeping. I’m jealous of every writer who’s written a feature for The Atlantic and of every Paris memoir that’s ever been published, especially the ones that involve a lot of food. I am full of unthinkable jealousies.

When I described this to a friend he corrected me. “You’re not jealous,” he said. “You’re envious. You want to have written these books, sure, but it’s not like you feel you rightfully should have.”

He’s wrong, though. I do.

My strongest jealousies have a certain logic to them. The books I’m most jealous of aren’t necessarily the ones I most admire. I love The Brothers Karamazov and I love the Oresteia, but I can’t say either inspires jealousy or envy or anything else, really, aside from a kind of awe. They exist outside me, and I can’t conceive of any alternate reality in which I might have written them. But Meghan Daum’s Life Would Be Perfect if I Lived in That House? I’m jealous of that, just as I’m jealous of her first collection, My Misspent Youth. Truthfully, I’m jealous of most literary essayists, especially those who write about their homes or homely yearnings. Why? The through line is just me, that I want to have written their work. And sometimes, late at night, I allow myself to think that maybe I could have, if only they hadn’t gotten there first.

As an earnest undergraduate, I used to write obsessively about houses and their connection to identity; my scraped-together thesis covered A Room of One’s Own and Fun Home, two more books I envy. Life Would Be Perfect tackles the same questions I struggled to answer with more grace, insight, and humor then I could have ever hoped to muster at 22, if ever. When I found Daum’s memoir, too late to use it for my paper, I was unimaginably jealous. I could have written that book, or at least one very like it! All I needed was more time (and maybe an MFA)! But Daum had beaten me to it, and my handful of essays looked punier than ever. The problem wasn’t really that someone had written about refinished floors with the same zeal I felt, of course. My jealousy was largely just a cover for my terror. How could I ever write something original when someone had already explored, written, and published all of my ideas and interests?

The grand irony is that Life Would Be Perfect if I Lived in That House is very much a book about envy. It’s a memoir about obsession, insecurity, and identity creation, but the source of all this trouble is “a shabby yet elegant prewar apartment in Manhattan,” not a memoir published by a talented stranger. Daum’s admission that she “sometimes found it difficult to read the Sunday paper without writhing in envy” at the luxury real estate listings and that simply “walking by certain edifices…without feeling the ache of rejection” became impossible works pretty well as a description of literary jealousy. Just replace “luxury real estate listings” with “bestseller list” and “edifices” with “the shelves of the local Barnes & Noble.”

Life Would Be Perfect charts a struggle with identity and jealousy, but here the relationship between the two isn’t necessarily destructive. Daum’s real estate envy drives her to move from Manhattan to Nebraska to L.A., creating a livable and even enjoyable life as she goes. Her jealousy ultimately incites action, not paralysis. She is not erased. The envied apartment and life are still attainable, and Daum goes after them. This time there’s a way out of the seemingly infinite jealousy loop, and she takes it.

Not all jealousy is so easily converted into action, however. Like any explosive material, it has its dangers as well as its uses, as art and history tell us again and again. Why did Cain kill Abel? Why did Medea murder not only Jason’s new bride but her own children? And why does Antonino Salieri, a passionate but mediocre Austrian court composer and the focus of Miloš Forman’s stylish film Amadeus, break down once he recognizes the overwhelming talent of a young Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart?

“From now on we are enemies, You and I,” Salieri spits, not at Mozart but at a crucifix, in a scene at the heart of the film. He isn’t angry at the prodigy; here it’s God who’s the enemy. “You chose for Your instrument a boastful, lustful, smutty, infantile boy, and gave me for award only the ability to recognize the incarnation,” Salieri complains. “Because You are unjust, unfair, unkind, I will block You, I swear it.” And he does, eventually killing Mozart with sheer overwork and nervous exhaustion. God gave Salieri “only the ability to recognize the incarnation” of ability, the desire for brilliance but none of the brilliance itself. What could be worse? What could be more relatable for a reader and aspiring writer?

In “An Ode to Envy,” a TED Talk, senior editor at the New York Review of Books and remarkable essayist Parul Sehgal points out that without jealousy there wouldn’t be much literature to speak of. No William Shakespeare, no Anna Karenina, no Brothers Karamazov, no Madame Bovary, no Marcel Proust. One of the wonders of fiction, she argues, is its ability to accurately capture and reflect our jealousy. The power and dark appeal of envy, so often blurred in real life, are fully revealed in our greatest novels. Sehgal adds that jealousy itself is creative work. “When we feel jealous we tell ourselves a story,” she explains. “We tell ourselves a story about other people’s lives, and these stories make us feel terrible because they’re designed to make us feel terrible. As the teller of the tale and the audience we know just what details to include…Jealousy makes us all amateur novelists.”

But what about those of us who deal in nonfiction? What does essayistic jealousy look like? Is it possible that our jealousy is simultaneously less creative and more painful then its fictional counterpart? Is it possible that it’s less jealousy and more insecurity? Less Sehgal and more Salieri?

When we say, “all of my ideas have already been had,” what we’re expressing isn’t jealousy, it’s doubt in our own creativity, in our worthiness to write about anything at all. Never mind that originality in the broadest sense is hardly possible, and never mind that the beauty of most good essayistic writing lies in the writer’s ability to both make the specific feel universal and, paradoxically, turn the commonplace into something momentarily extraordinary. When we say “I should have written that,” what we mean is “How unjust, unfair, unkind that you were faster, smarter, and more fortunate than I. How terrible that I have nothing more to offer.” We’re not amateur novelists at all, just whiners.

So how to deal with our unthinkable jealousies? What to do with my frustration that I’ll never be able to claim The Empathy Exams or Bad Feminist or Bluets as my own?

Sehgal has a suggestion, drawn from “The Adventure of the Six Napoleons,” a Sherlock Holmes story in which the bumbling detective Lestrade finally allows himself to admire Holmes’s incredible abilities rather than resenting his genius. “What if jealousy really is just a matter of geometry, just a matter of where we allow ourselves to stand?” Sehgal wonders. “What if we don’t have to resent somebody’s excellence, [but instead] we can align ourselves with it?”

Easier said then done, sure, but as an idealistic goal it’s better than nothing, and certainly far better than Salieri’s murderous vision. It works particularly well when one is wrestling with awe in the face of true talent and real brilliance. It works considerably less well if one is frustrated by more possible comparisons, by mere issues of timing and semi-plausible “if onlys.”

For this second, more practical problem of jealousy, Meghan Daum again offers a solution. In the foreword to the 2015 edition of My Misspent Youth, the essay collection that made her career, Daum tells a story about the title essay. Immediately after finishing a first draft “in a two-week fury,” Daum came across a strikingly similar essay by Vince Passaro in Harper’s. “Reading his story,” she writes, “I felt even more certain I was on to something…I was also certain that no one would ever publish my essay now because it had effectively already been published.”

It is at this point that many writers’ basest instincts would kick in, but Daum gets to work. There’s no sense of frustration or injustice, no hint of insecurity. She isn’t jealous; she is a writer. So, she “rewrote [the essay] several times,” changing the focus to something more unique to her experience, separating it from the more general essay that preceded it. An easy solution? No, but a simple one.

Daum’s approach is infinitely more practical than my own patented sulking, but I don’t think it will ever totally replace it. Four million Google results on writerly jealousy say this is a plague without cure, though it does have the benefit of giving us all something to commiserate about. So long as we’re human and flawed, we’ll be jealous. So long as there are writers in every coffee shop and on the staff of every magazine and behind the cover of every one of the thousands of fresh books printed each year, there will be people for us to envy. Just, please, nobody else write about their homes for a while, okay? I think it’s my turn.

Image Credit: Wikipedia.

A Year in Reading: Michael Robbins

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As usual, my job as a book critic dictated much of my reading this year. My favorite book of the year — the best book of the year, I think — is Hilton Als’s White Girls, which I reviewed for the Chicago Tribune. The following are some of the best books — there were also sundry poems, comics, essays, and horror novels — I managed to read for free:

I first read Frederick Exley’s A Fan’s Notes in my mid-twenties, sitting on the floor beside a bookshelf in Borders because I couldn’t afford to buy the book. I’d picked it up with the intention of leafing through it a bit, having heard it referred to here and there in reverential tones. I started reading and, astounded, didn’t get up again for two hours. This there-but-for-grace loser’s manifesto, this perfectly sane cry. Someone called it the best novel written in English since The Great Gatsby, but it seemed to me much better than that. Rereading it fifteen years later, without overlooking its flaws, I’d place it above every American novel except Moby-Dick, Light in August, and Absalom, Absalom!

Hobbes’s Leviathan is not nearly as funny as A Fan’s Notes, but I can now almost agree with William H. Gass that Hobbes was one of “the three greatest masters of English prose” (in case you were wondering where my obnoxious impulse to rank works of literature comes from). More arduous were Fredric Jameson’s Hegel Variations: On The Phenomenology of Spirit and Hubert Dreyfus’s Being-in-the-World: A Commentary on Heidegger’s Being and Time, Division 1. And no matter what you believe or think you believe, Denys Turner’s Thomas Aquinas is well worth your time.

I reread some favorite books this year — Thoreau’s Walden, Freud and Breuer’s Studies in Hysteria, Ezra Pound’s ABC of Reading, Samuel Beckett’s Murphy — and added some new ones to the category: Simone Weil’s Gravity and Grace, Emil Cioran’s The Trouble with Being Born, and Confucius’s Analects (in both the D.C. Lau and Burton Watson translations). It’s a pity Weil and Cioran never met.

Scary fun: David Quammen, Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic; Janet Malcolm, The Journalist and the Murderer; Michel Houellebecq, The Map and the Territory; George V. Higgins, The Friends of Eddie Coyle; Derek Raymond, He Died with His Eyes Open; Edward St. Aubyn, The Patrick Melrose Novels.

Finally, two books I’m reading at the moment: T. M. Luhrmann’s When God Talks Back: Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship with God and Molly Worthen’s Apostles of Reason: The Crisis of Authority in American Evangelicalism. As a sort of free-floating Kierkegaardian becoming-Christian on the Way or whatever, I’ve spent a lot of time loathing conservative American Protestants — people who believe in the Rapture, or that the earth is six thousand years old, or that homosexuals are going to hell, or, um, that there is a hell. People who take the Bible literally except for the part about selling your shit and giving the money to the poor. I grew up around such folk. But of course my condescension and hostility are beside the point, forms of cultural capital that — oh, you know the drill. Luhrmann’s and Worthen’s books cut through all that by attempting to understand evangelicalism from within, critically but sympathetically and without easy irony. Worthen’s is the more scholarly study, tracing the variety of evangelical movements, complicating received wisdom about their anti-intellectualism. Luhrmann reads like good journalism. Embedded in an evangelical church, she tells real people’s real stories. She occasionally betrays a lack of theological grounding, referring to God as “a powerful invisible being” and assuming a dualism of soul and body (Turner’s Aquinas would help her on both points). And she frames much of her discussion in terms of an opposition between science and religion that rather begs the question. But I’m learning things on almost every page (and, again, I’m still reading these books, so perhaps my concerns are addressed at some point in the text): the evangelical practice of speaking in tongues seems to have arisen, after lying almost completely dormant since the Acts of the Apostles, in my birthplace of Topeka, Kansas, in the late nineteenth century; the path of the religious right was blazed by the hippies. I still think conservative evangelicalism is wrong about almost everything — society, theology, politics, Christianity, people, love, God, sex, family, economics. And I still believe, with Reinhold Niebuhr, that the rabid intransigence of fundamentalism is a clear sign of its own doubt and insecurity (which makes it quite dangerous). But that’s precisely why I’m grateful for these books, which deepen our understanding and broaden our empathy.

More from A Year in Reading 2013

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

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Anticipate Doom: The Millions Interviews László Krasznahorkai

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Like many noted Hungarian writers, László Krasznahorkai has the distinction of being a literary giant in the German-speaking world and an exotic literary curiosity, subject to the fascination of cultists, in the Anglophone world. Americans first encountered at least a hint of his work via the director Béla Tarr, with whom Krasznahorkai has forged a three-decade-long collaboration, beginning with the 1988 film Damnation. Tarr’s meditative epic, the seven-and-a-half hour Satantango (1994), a long-take heavy depiction of a dying collectivist town, was an adaptation of Krasznahorkai’s 1985 novel of the same name. After 27 years, Satantango the novel has finally been translated into English.

Krasznahorkai is a difficult, demanding novelist, whose work is made up of long, seemingly interminable sentences, each of them prose poems in themselves, that push to the very edge of madness. Colm Tóibín writes, “For [Krasznahorkai] the sentence is an act of pure performance — a tense high-wire act, a piece of grave and ambitious vaudeville performed with energy both comic and ironic. But there is also a compacted edge to his prose; he is not interested in language merely for its own sake. Prose for him is a complex vehicle moving through a world both real and surreal with considerable precision and sharpness.” The universe of Satantango is vicious and grim, a buried cackle seems to permeate its air.  And yet hints of optimism, of small possibilities of human connection seep into the story. His humanity is Faulknerian.

On the occasion of Satantango’s first appearance in English, Krasznahorkai agreed to answer some questions by email. He wrote his answers in Hungarian. The poet George Szirtes, who translated Satantango as well as two other Krasznahorkai novels, The Melancholy of Resistance (which Tarr adapted in the 2000 film The Werkmeister Harmonies) and War and War, translated his answers.

The Millions: Satantango first appeared in 1985, during the slow-motion collapse of the collectivist system in Hungary. It is now making its first appearance in English translation in 2012, a few months after Hungary officially adopted a new constitution that, among other things, consolidated state power over the media, and declared the country, in terms that would be popular with our own religious right, officially Christian.  As tempting as it is for an American reader, would it be a mistake to see premonitions of Hungary’s current political situation in the pages of your novel?

László Krasznahorkai: You will never go wrong anticipating doom in my books, anymore than you’ll go wrong in anticipating doom in ordinary life. But when I wrote this book, that is to say in the early ’80s, I had no idea it would be open to a political reading or even echoed anything in the political world. The idea of a political message in Satantango was as far from my mind as the Soviet empire itself. I was only concerned to explore why everyone around me seemed as sad as the rain falling on Hungary and why I myself was sad, surrounded as I was by such people, in the rain. It may sound odd to say so, but our situation hasn’t really changed. The collapse of the Soviet Empire and the political independence resulting from it gave Hungarians a chance of building a new country — but it was immediately clear to me, among other things, that the real question was how we could build the new with the same old people? So the sadness continued to hang around. Maybe we have a little less rain than before, but that’s all.

TM: The third chapter of Satantango opens with a quotation from a geological book describing Hungary’s ancient underwater past during the Paleozoic and Mesozoic eras. The doctor is reading this passage and when he looks up he is surrounded by the simple objects of his own dirty house. Two of your novels that have now appeared in English, The Melancholy of Resistance and Satantango, have moments in which characters try to conceive of their positions within enormous conceptions of space and time. But after thinking of their place in the cosmos, a trick of the brain or a change in their external circumstances reminds them of their place in small Hungarian backwaters. Could either of these novels be transported to other small towns in other cultures?

LK: No, I don’t think so. We could perhaps draw a few parallels but they would be forced: the fact is that each culture produces its own sensitive, fragile, unrepeatable conditions; smells, colors, tastes, objects and moods that seem insignificant but have a character that is all but intangible, though you are probably right, for art, and that includes the novel, has its own powers of evocation so that if I read about an inexpressible air of gloom descending on a filthy bar somewhere in Northern Portugal it conjures in me the kind of melancholy I felt the last time I drained a glass of pálinka in a bar in the south of Hungary. In this way you may arrive at some broad overarching sense of commonality between the inhabitants of Northern Portugal and the south of Hungary even though the common light switch is slightly different in the two countries, and that difference is extremely important and highly significant — but having stressed the difference we must acknowledge that the movement with which the last man in the bar switches the light off is precisely the same in both cases.

TM: Your contemporary Péter Esterházy writes, “The nineteenth-century sentence was long-winded, the meaning wandering through long periodic structures, and in any case the Hungarian long sentence is a dubious formation because the words do not have genders and the subordinate clauses are more uncertainly connected to the main clauses than in the reassuring rigor of a Satzbau (German sentence construction). Such sentences totter along, uncertain even of themselves, stammer a little; in short are extremely lovable.” Does Esterházy’s description fit your own conception of your long ecstatic sentences?

LK: No, I don’t think that means anything to me. Esterházy is probably thinking of certain 19th-century Hungarian writers, or of a particular kind of writer, I can’t tell, but what he says certainly doesn’t apply to Hungarian literature as a whole and not at all to the Hungarian language in general: it is particularly untrue of my own way with sentences. It seems to me that this definition reflects his own literary practice and that the generalization that follows from it is only natural. If I go on to consider my “ecstatically long sentences,” at first nothing particular comes to mind. Then, on reconsideration, I suspect that these long ecstatic sentences have no relation to theory or to any idea I might have about the Hungarian language, or indeed any language, but are the direct products of the “ecstatic” heroes of my books, that they proceed directly from them. It is not me but they who serve as narrators behind the book. I myself am silent, utterly silent in fact. And since that is the case I can hear what these heroic figures are saying, my task then being simply to transcribe them. So the sentences in question are really not mine but are uttered by those in whom some wild desire is working, the desire being that those to whom they address their sentences should understand them correctly and unconditionally. That desire lends their speeches a mad urgency. The urgency is the style. And one more thing: the speeches these heroes are so desperate to rattle off are not the book, not in the least! The book is a medium, a vehicle for their speeches. They are so convinced of the overwhelming importance of what they have to say, that their language is intended to produce a magical effect without necessarily carrying a concrete meaning: it is an embodiment of the ecstasy of persuasion by magic, the momentum of the desire for understanding.

TM: Your work first gained an audience in the English-speaking world filtered through your longtime collaborator Béla Tarr, whose 450-minute version of Satantango became a semi-fixture on the festival circuit in the 1990s. If you push and stretch the sentence to absolute extremes, Tarr does the same with the long take. The observation is so obvious, I’m sure thousands of others have already made it, but do you yourself see a connection between this aspect of Tarr’s methods and yours? Have your novels transformed in any direct way as a result of your collaboration with Tarr? Do you visualize them in your head in anyway filtered through Tarr’s style?

LK: My feeling is that those who love Tarr’s films don’t see it quite like that. A writer doesn’t need anything to write a book, he is completely alone and it’s good that it should be so. A director on the other hand can’t make a film without others. How does this work with Tarr? Because no one has really spoken about this, and it’s unlikely that anyone will, let me do so now and say that Tarr’s cinema changed from the time he met me and we started working together to make our first film. The cause of this radical change was the effect of reading my work, in particular of reading Satantango, getting to understand my vision, my way of thinking, my style. In all the big stories, and in every serious collaboration, someone has to be the initiator, the source from which work flows and in this case it was me, I was the source; in other words it was my vision that decided what kind of films we would make together. The films Tarr made before me were “honest,” that was their strength, it was what characterized them — it was why I, for example, liked them so much. I liked the fact that in these early films of his the single task of the central character was not to lie, that they would not lie — it was the solitary basis for the aesthetic of the films which were a particular form of documentary. Tarr employed amateur actors, or the kind of actor he could torture on camera until he or she spoke the truth. When we met in 1985, Tarr suddenly discovered what he had been desperately seeking and which he very much needed: the only literary material he could possibly work with, the only possible style, the only visual world and dramaturgy, the only appropriate visual rhythm, in other words an artistic vision, spirit and corpus. From this point on everything was suddenly simple. I gave him everything, all I knew, body and soul, really everything, and despite all this he created an absolutely original cinema, something utterly authentic, a form of art quite different from mine. I willingly gave my heart to helping him and now, looking back at these works, these collaborations between myself and Tarr — Tarr’s work — I must say that I almost like the results, that Tarr’s cinema is the only cinema I can really tolerate. There was never any question in these collaborations as to who would make the film. We called them Tarr’s films — it is Tarr who went to the movie festivals and still does, and will as long as he lives: it is right that Tarr should wear the crown, the rest of us who worked with him, and particularly me, we are anonymous in this happy set of events and that is as it should be. Only one thing matters, Tarr’s cinema itself — the others, the sources of the inspiration, the cast, are all unimportant. Making films isn’t a matter of fairness. And that too is as it should be.

TM: The doctor in Satantango fears the loss of memory of any detail that passes his perception as a sign of mortality. “To ignore the apparently insignificant was to admit that one was condemned to sit defenseless on the parapet connecting the rising and falling members of the bridge between chaos and comprehensible order.” There follows a humorous passage in which he lists the things he must remember. But to remember so much of either the important or the insignificant leads to paralysis and a different kind of death. Does the structure of your novel — the tango that constantly goes back and forth in time — mirror the problems of not being able to forget?

LK: What I can’t forget is the world we have created. Everything is of equal interest in the world except man himself. When I stand on the top of a mountain and look down on the valley, seeing the trees in the distance, the deer, the horses and the stream below, then look up at the sky, the clouds and the birds, it is all perfect and magical right up to the moment that, suddenly and brutally, a human being walks into view. The spectacle I was enjoying from the mountain top is simply ruined. As concerns the structure of my novels I am less certain since I never really think about it. But since you are interested all I can say is that the structure isn’t something I decide but what is generated by the madness and intensity of my characters. Or rather that it is as if someone were speaking behind them, but I myself don’t know who it is. What is certain is that I am afraid of him. But it is he that speaks, and his speeches are perfectly mad. Under the circumstances it is self evident that I have no control over anything. Structure? Controlling the structure? It is he who controls everything, it is the furious speed of his madness that decides it all. And given this fury and madness it is not only impossible to remember anything or even think — the only recourse is forgetting.

TM: At first, I imagined you were making Esti into an archetype of the wise noble idiot. That was until, a few pages later, she commits a particularly savage act. Were you deliberately rewriting this archetype and playing with reader’s moral expectations? Oddly enough, I still found her the most sympathetic and tragic figure in the book.

LK:  Estike (her name derives from the original word “este” meaning “evening” but in translation it is Esti) is a very important figure. There is a point at which this consequence can easily turn to cruelty. And that is the case here. Please don’t think that the tenderness of this wise, noble idiot is so easy to bear. Spending time with Estike is like spending time with a being of infinite purity. Purity is dangerous. The construction of purity has very important consequences. Estike’s purity stems from the fact that she is a victim. And a victim is always desperately rational in victimhood. It is very dangerous being with a victim. I love her so much I feel physical pain whenever I think of her.

TM: The dance that forms the structure of Satantango and the Werckmeister Harmonies that form the focal point of The Melancholy of Resistance suggest a desire for rhythmic order. I thought I could hear an echo of this rhythm in Szirtes’ translation. This may be an odd question, but do you write with music in the background? And if so, what music?

LK: No, I write my texts, my sentences, in my head — outside there is a terrible, almost unbearable noise, inside there is a terrible, almost unbearable, pounding silence.

TM: Finally, American readers will surely make comparisons between Satantango and Faulkner’s novels. There are the long, rhythmic sentences. There is the small dying town cursed by a past and the constant jarring shifts in time. Did Faulkner’s novels, either in English or Hungarian translation, or any of our other writers inform your work?

LK: Yes, they had an extraordinary effect on me and I am glad I have the opportunity of admitting this to you now. The influence of Faulkner — particularly of As I Lay Dying and The Sound and the Fury — struck an incredibly deep echo in me: his passion, his pathos, his whole character, significance, the rhythmical structure of his novels, all carried me away. I must have been about 16-18, I suppose, at one’s most impressionable years. What else? I was an enthusiastic reader of magnificent Dostoevsky, of the mysterious Ezra Pound, of Thoreau’s Walden, and of Nathanael West’s Miss Lonelyhearts — the list could be infinitely extended. I couldn’t have existed without great writers and for me these writers constituted greatness. The fact is I can’t exist without great writing even now, and that is why it is so important, as I am slowly realizing, that I inhabit the same planet as, thank God, Thomas Pynchon…

A Year in Reading: Scott Esposito

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Looking back over 2009, there are far too many books that I loved to write them all up here, but here are some of the standouts that may not have received the attention they deserve.

As a judge for Open Letter Books’ Best Translated Book Award, I read The Darkroom of Damocles by Willem Frederik Hermans, originally published in the Netherlands in 1958. Plotwise, it’s as riveting a detective story as I read all year, but its purpose is far beyond that of your average noir. The book dramatizes the experience of a Dutch resistance fighter during World War II, but with a twist: eventually he, and we, become uncertain as to which side he’s actually working for, with disastrous consequences. When the book was published in 1958, Nazi collaboration and Holocaust guilt were huge factors in Dutch society (they remain so today), so the book was attempting to grapple with a major issue of the day. It remains wholly affecting as both a novel and as a dramatization of the fog of war.

We continue to hear rumblings that postmodernism as a cultural and literary era is ending, and that we’re moving on to whatever comes next (post-postmodernism?). If so, I have the feeling that the literary ideas and techniques bequeathed to us by postmodernism will, like those gifted us by modernism, live on in the literature to come, whatever form it takes. One book that did a superb job of embracing and tweaking postmodernism as a literary genre was 2009’s The Cardboard Universe by Christopher Miller. As I wrote in my review at the Review of Contemporary Fiction, the book “is an encyclopedic guide to the life work of an imaginary, reclusive sci-fi author whose initials are PKD.” He’s not Philip K. Dick but rather Phoebus K. Dank, and the two men writing the encyclopedia about his life’s work are: 1) Dank’s sycophantic best friend, and 2) his pompous, angry arch-rival. The result is an honestly hilarious “novel” that’s part Pale Fire, part murder mystery, and part grad student Easter egg hunt. It remains one of my favorite reads of 2009, and I hope lots of people give it a shot.

This year I read all of Cormac McCarthy’s novels, which was not only a wonderful reading experience but also a revealing one: those who think they know him from his post-Blood Meridian work aren’t nearly as well acquainted with McCarthy as they think. Real McCarthyites need to read the four novels that came before Blood Meridian, the longest and most amazing of which is Suttree. The book, quite simply, is McCarthy on Joyce. It’s a pastoral, quasi-epic set on the Tennessee River; it’s been called an anti-Walden, a worthy sequel to Huck Finn. Whatever label you want to put on it, it’s the longest, lushest most intricate and baroquely bizarre thing McCarthy ever wrote. (Those who think Blood Meridian is baroque need to read this.)

A book that had long been recommended to me and that I finally got around to was Stoner by John Williams, which has me convinced that Williams was a devotee of Thomas Mann. Like Mann, Williams shows here an ability to tell you everything you need to know about a character’s function in the book with leitmotifs. He also resembles Mann in that he masterfully orchestrates the evolution and interplay of numerous ideas throughout the course of the novel while never neglecting the very human drama that forms the heart of the story. Stoner is essentially about the value of a life: the titular protagonist is a perfectly mediocre academic who lives and dies without ever making much of an impact. Yet in Williams’ hands we see all the value and struggle that goes into a life that has no historical importance. Williams won a National Book Award for Butcher’s Crossing, which I’ve heard is even better, all that more reason that I’m glad NYRB Classics has brought him back into print.

Lastly I’d like to mention The Late Age of Print by Ted Striphas as one of the more interesting critical works I’ve read this year. Striphas simply sets out to describe the publishing industry and associated apparatus in which he calls the “late age of print.” In order to do that he must recapitulate a good deal of the publishing industry as we know it, going back into the middle of hte 19th century. The resultant book is interesting both as a history of publishing and a look at this late age and where publishing might be headed tomorrow.

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