I think for my 2012 “Year in Reading” I’m going to try and be topical, since I’m guessing this series will feature enough laundry lists of great books as it is. So, since my book The End of Oulipo? is publishing in January from Zero Books, I’ll make my topic Oulipo literature. I’ve certainly been reading enough of it lately.
This is the year I had the great good fortune to discover Harry Mathews, for a long time the only American Oulipo author, and certainly one of the greats of 20th-century literature. For Mathews newbies, I think there are two places to start, depending on your reading habits. If you like to be tossed into the deep end, then go for Mathews’s first novel, The Conversions (and read Ed Park’s excellent essay on said book). It’s, well, a very strange novel about a quest to solve a riddle in a dead man’s will, where each chapter becomes a strange metamorphosis of the preceding chapters. It ends with one of the more beautiful extended metaphors I’ve read all year, and on which I write at length in The End of Ouliopo?
If you, alternatively, prefer good old plot, then start with what I and many others consider Mathews’s masterwork, Cigarettes, which is one of the most plot-heavy books you will read all year, despite Mathews’s insistence that it was his only “properly” Oulipian novel. (On the surface, it will appear much more Edith Wharton than Raymond Queneau.) I then recommend A D Jameson’s essay “I Read It for the Plot: The Narrative Artistry of Harry Mathews’ Cigarettes” for a great analysis of just why Mathews’s rendition of a plot-heavy novel is so damn literary.
Mathews also wrote Singular Pleasures, 61 short accounts of masturbation, along with a collection of other odds and ends. It is more difficult to find than his proper novels, but well worth seeking out.
This year I also read virtually everything of Georges Perec’s that has been translated (many for the second time). I’ll toss out a recommendation for his wonderful collection of essays and miscellaneous texts, Species of Spaces. It includes the story “The Winter Journey,” the best Borgesian short story written by a Frenchman. I will also put in a recommendation for Perec’s strange short novel W, or the Memory of a Childhood, which always seems to be left behind when people talk about the more bizarre A Void (the novel without the letter e) or the masterpiece, Life: A User’s Manual.
Of the lesser-known Oulipo members, the works of Jacques Roubaud should not be missed. His Mathematics, just published this year, is a great introduction to this writer who marries Oulipo, Proust, and mathematics (it’s a strange marriage). Then there is the first book by the second American Oulipo member, Daniel Levin Becker, called Many Subtle Channels. Not a properly Oulipian book per se (if we’re defining that as having some sort of constraint), Many Subtle Channels is something along the lines of a memoir spliced with literary criticism, reportage, and good old boosterism of a fantastic body of literature. And lastly, I’ll toss in Marcel Benabou’s strange anti-novel Why I Have Not Written Any of My Books.
And then, after the well-known Oulipo and the lesser known, we get to the authors I regard as somehow being in league with Oulipo, but not actually being a part of the collective. Christian Bök, who has taught microbes to make poetry, certainly must be some kind of kin to the Oulipo. I discuss both his Crystallography and Eunoia (the latter consisting of chapters that only utilize one vowel at a time) in The End of Oulipo? I also regard César Aira is having some relevance here for his “constant flight forward,” certainly a writing constraint of a kind. For an idea, have a look at his just-translated Miracle Cures of Dr. Aira.
There are lots more out there to find, and many beyond that still only readable in French. Beyond Perec’s dream journals (which Levin Becker is translating for Melville House), there’s Ian Monk’s Plouk Town, (raved by Levin Becker and also called “untranslatable” by him — just the kind of challenge an Oulipian would relish), an anthology of “sequels” to Perec’s “Winter Journey” that is currently being translated, and Anne F. Garréta, whom my co-author, Lauren Elkin, recommends should be translated post-haste in The End of Oulipo? For an idea of the riches that await us, have a look at Drunken Boat’s Oulipo feature.
The good stuff: The Millions’ Notable articles
The motherlode: The Millions’ Books and Reviews
Like what you see? Learn about 5 insanely easy ways to Support The Millions, and follow The Millions on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr.
The recently awarded international Man Booker prize (given to Ismail Kadare of Albania) inspired critic John Carey to announce in the Guardian: “If you speak Spanish or French or Italian or German or any of a dozen other languages, and walk into your local bookstore, you will … find what is being imagined in China, what stories are being told in Korea, how the novel is being reinvented in Spain and the Scandinavian countries. But if you live in England you will find no such abundance.” The same is true of the US, so I was happy to see that the Guardian had some experts put together a list of “10 overseas writers we should be reading.” As a supplement to the Guardian’s list, here are some of the books by these authors that appear to be available here in the StatesHarry Mulisch – Netherlands – The Discovery of Heaven, The Assault, Sigfried, The ProcedureStefan Heym – Germany – The Wandering Jew, The King David ReportCees Nooteboom – Netherlands – The Following Story, Roads to Santiago: A Modern-Day Pilgrimage Through Spain, Rituals, All Souls Day, In the Dutch MountainsMarcel Benabou – Morocco – Jacob, Menahem, and Mimoun: A Family Epic, Dump This Book While You Still Can!, Why I Have Not Written Any of My BooksHalldor Laxness – Iceland – Under the Glacier, Independent People, Iceland’s Bell, Paradise Reclaimed, World Light, The Fish Can SingJuan Goytisolo – Spain – State of Siege, The Marx Family Saga, Marks of Identity, Juan the Landless, Landscapes of War: From Sarajevo to Chechnya, The Garden of SecretsJaan Kross – Estonia – Professor Martens’ Departure, Czar’s MadmanMarie Darrieussecq – France – Pig Tales: A Novel of Lust and Transformation, My Phantom Husband, Undercurrents, Breathing UnderwaterShen Congwen – China – Imperfect ParadiseDubravka Ugresic – Croatia – The Culture of Lies: Antipolitical Essays, Lend Me Your Character, Thank You for Not Reading: Essays on Literary Trivia, The Museum of Unconditional Surrender, In the Jaws of LifeLooks like an interesting, eclectic list. I’m intrigued by Ugresic in particular. For more Man Booker International Prize coverage check out the Literary Saloon.