I do read a little contemporary literature, but for a year-end list the more interesting thing in my opinion is always to focus on what’s obscure, the chance discovery, the forgotten tome. So here goes…
Terrors of the Night or a Discourse of Apparitions (1594) – Thomas Nashe
You will not find another author so madcap entertaining as Thomas Nashe. No, it’s not easy to read. When I read Nashe it feels I’m looking through a glass darkly to a time when the conventions of written English were in radical flux, coming into formation. I tried to read Pierce Penniless but my attention felt worn out after about 15 pages. It (and The Unfortunate Traveler and Lenten Stuff) await my attention another moon. From Terrors of the Night:
“As touching the terrors of the night, they are as many as our sins. The night is the devil’s black book, wherein he recordeth all our transgressions. Even as when a condemned man is put into a dark dungeon, secluded from all comfort of light or company, he doth nothing but despairfully call to mind his graceless former life, and the brutish outrages and misdemeanours that have thrown him into that desolate horror, so when night in her rusty dungeon hath imprisoned our eyesight, and that we are shut separately in our chambers from resort, the devil keepeth his audit in our sin-guilty consciences; no sense but surrenders to our memory a true bill of parcels of his detestable impieties. The table of our heart is turned to an index of iniquities, and all our thoughts are nothing but texts to condemn us.” (full text)
Because I Was Flesh (1961) – Edward Dahlberg
Rainer Hanshe recommended Dahlberg to me as being up my alley, and that was after I’d read Paul Metcalf’s high praise of Dahlberg’s Because I Was Flesh in From Quarry Road. So I knew it was time. Well, an American who lived and breathed in the twentieth-century went and wrote a whole book about himself and his mother in soundly Elizabethan language. Sounds risky, but the mad codger flew high. Some will spurn it for its reconditeness, others will smear it for what they perceive as its misogyny, but I revel in its relentlessly rhetorical turns and its abstruse diction. But a small taste:
“Only a man cankered by his own zeal would crimp Scripture in order to call a lady barber a disorderly Magdala. When the time came she would be a steadfast wife and provide a husband who cherished her with a jolly, bawdy bed and fat gammons. She would look just as legal and righteous as any other female householder. Love restores the blind, the palsied and the virgin, and even if a lady barber smeared her bridal sheet with Heinz ketchup, no bridegroom should be so foolish as to examine it. A man who scrutinizes everything that he does–or someone else does to him–will die swearing or live to run mad in the streets with no cover for his nude soul but a syllogism. Besides, a woman is a marvelous chameleon creature, for she can cheat, lie and copulate, and still be the tenderest pullet.” (p. 25 in the New Directions edition)
Frame Structures: Early Poems 1974-1979 (1996) – Susan Howe
“On Monday, massacre, burning, and pillage
On Tuesday, gifts, and visits among friends”
(from Chanting at the Crystal Sea, strophe 20; link to blog post on Howe)
Orality and Literacy (1982) – Walter J. Ong
Tiny but crucial, Orality and Literacy maps out some of the differences between speech and writing, between what Ong calls “primary oral cultures” and societies governed by writing. This is very stimulating for anyone curious about the history of literature, the cognitive dynamics of language, and much much more. A nice reminder of what we are almost wired to forget:
“It is demoralizing to remind oneself that there is no dictionary in the mind, that lexicographical apparatus is a very late accretion to language as language, that all languages have no help from writing at all, and that outside of relatively high-technology cultures most users of languages have always got along pretty well without any visual transformations whatsoever of vocal sound.”
Hidden Cities: The Discovery and Loss of Ancient North American Civilization (1994) – Roger G. Kennedy
I became interested in the extinct mound-building civilizations of the eastern United States (many mounds of which may still be visited today) this year. I had visited several mounds throughout my adoloscence but what is there really to be seen or to know beneath the imposingness of a monumental heap of dirt? I’m plagued and perplexed by my partial knowledge still, and no matter how much I read about the mounds they remain impenetrable to me. Kudos to the archaeologists and paleontologists whose efforts have increased our understanding of these early inhabitants of North America, and to such historians as Roger Kennedy who in this book aims for a synthetic understanding of what those civilizations must have been like. It might it help to mitigate a little bit of that amnesia from which Americans always seem to be suffering.
Wonderful Life: The Burgess Shale and the Nature of History (1989) – Stephen Jay Gould
I found this book at the library’s annual used sale quite on a lark; I headed for the science and nature section with a yen to redress my ignorance in matters of geology. Well, I’m still little more than an ignoramus when it comes to the deep time of the earth, but my eyes were opened to the mind-boggling difference of such alien arthropod life forms as Anomalocaris, Marrella and Opabinia. Gould’s book is a tour de force, illuminating not just the radical contingency of history, but the ways institutions and ideologies shape the way scientists look at history. This was the first book I had read of Gould’s, and it is Cambrian natural history written with the clip and ease of an airport thriller, what a rare thing.
Etudes de silhouettes (2010) – Pierre Senges
A good swath of this book (about 6,000 words) will be published in my translation next spring in the newish London-based journal Hotel. The book consists of short texts (ranging from half a page to 5 pages or so) composed from Kafka’s unfinished beginnings found in his notebooks. That probably sounds odd and not too inviting, but what makes this book so extraordinary is the humor, the undreamt of flights of fancy which Senges schemes up time and time again. I hope I can find a publisher who wants to publish the full book in English. I will keep trying. For now, there is The Major Refutation.
With few annotations, and even fewer qualms, I offer the crème de la crème of my year’s reading — books published after 1900, that is. (See also my 2015 pre-1900 reading list.)
Henry IV (1922) – Luigi Pirandello (trans. Mark Musa, 1995)
This short play blurs the lines between madness and sanity. It might have been my mood, or what was going on in my life at the time, but it had me almost fearing for my own sanity, not just the character’s. Wonderfully disturbing. At Librivox you can listen to or download a free audiobook version, with volunteer voice actors.
Ladies Almanack (1928) – Djuna Barnes
Distinguished for its raunchy, parodic Elizabethan style, and accompanied by the author’s illustrations, this tiny tale was written for Barnes’s patroness Natalie Barney and her sapphic coterie. “Now this be a Tale of as fine a Wench as ever wet Bed,” it begins The full title, in good Renaissance tradition, is Ladies Almanack, showing their Signs and their tides; their Moons and their Changes; the Seasons as it is with them; their Eclipses and Equinoxes; as well as a full Record of diurnal and nocturnal Distempers. Written and illustrated by a Lady of Fashion.
The Best of S.J. Perelman (mid-20th century)
Marginalia on Casanova (1939) – Miklós Szentkuthy (trans. Tim Wilkinson, 2012)
The Old Man and the Sea (1952) – Ernest Hemingway
I’ve never felt drawn to Hemingway’s novels, but when I saw this on a bargain rack, there was no question we were going to go home together. I was not disappointed: the old man in his lonely skiff, lulled by illusions and pushed past the point of exhaustion, had me in tears through the final pages. If Moby-Dick is too long and too arch for you, maybe just go here.
Goethe and One of His Admirers (1956) – Arno Schmidt (John E. Woods, 1990)
Acquaintance with Grief (1966) – Carlo Emilio Gadda (trans. William Weaver, 1969)
This is the only book in recent memory that had me doubled up in tears with laughter. I did not understand everything I read. As with Moby-Dick, I had the impression that certain of the book’s baroque excesses were excessive by design, verging on a sort of self-parody. But it’s hard to say. Incidentally, this work proved unfinishable for Gadda — the last section is in draft form, far less complex in its syntax than the sections preceding it. Unlike That Awful Mess on Via Merulana, which I haven’t read, this book is sadly out of print; I paid dearly for my copy. Translator William Weaver achieves a rare feat here, of making the work feel like it is essentially his.
The Temple of Iconoclasts (1972) – J. Rodolfo Wilcock (trans. Lawrence Venuti, 2000)
Pas Un Jour (2002) – Anne Garréta
Garréta got a lot of attention and positive press this year for her book Sphinx, which Deep Vellum published in Emma Ramadan’s translation. So far I’ve read Ciels liquides and this book, which stands out as my favorite of Garréta’s. The narrator reflects back on her (or is it his?) different loves, carnal and platonic. The chapter changes for every lover, along with the style. The preface and the afterword ground the book in its governing conceit (notice I did not say constraint).
Out Stealing Horses (2003) – Per Petterson (trans. Anna Borne, 2005)
Oh, this book had me crying too. J.M. Schreiber and P.T. Smith recommended it to me, how could I resist?
Fragments of Lichtenberg (2008) – Pierre Senges (trans. Gregory Flanders, unpublished)
Years ago Dalkey Archive announced this translation as forthcoming and it looked like it was going to come out this past August/September, but, alas, it has fallen off the map again. Through a little conniving I managed to obtain an ARC of the book. (So did Charles Boyle.) M.A. Orthofer reviewed it, with admiration.
An Honest Ghost (2013) – Rick Whitaker
As I said in my write-up of the book: “This novel is built from sentences culled from other books: it takes them out of context, and fits them together into a new mosaic form.” A form of experiment or paradoxically unoriginal writing. Well worth the detour.
Loitering (2014) – Charles D’Ambrosio
Some of these personal essays, like “Seattle, 1974,” “Documents,” “Orphans,” “This Is Living,” “Misreading,” are just flooring in their emotional power and weird, casual poise.
Of the books I read in 2014, these are the ones I most enjoyed, which I will certainly reach for again:
On Monsters and Marvels (1582) – Ambroise Paré (trans. Janis L. Pallister)
Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature (1959) – Erich Auerbach
La Princesse de Clèves (1678) – Madame de Lafayette
Jacob’s Room (1922) – Virginia Woolf
If He Hollers Let Him Go (1945) – Chester Himes
The Inheritors (1955) – William Golding
The Grifters (1963) – Jim Thompson
The Buenos Aires Affair (1973) – Manuel Puig
The Use of Speech (1980) – Nathalie Sarraute (trans. Barbara Wright)
Ciels liquides (1990) – Anne Garréta
Ghosts (1990) – Cesar Aira (trans. Chris Andrews, 2008)
An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter (2000) – Cesar Aira (trans. Chris Andrews, 2006)
La Réfutation majeure (2004) – Pierre Senges
As for the year ahead (though my predictions always turn out wrong), here are some of the texts I’m gearing up for:
True Stories – Lucian
A Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies (1542) – Bartolomé de Las Casas
Hadji Murad – Leo Tolstoy
History of English Prose Rhythm – George Saintsbury
The Flanders Road – Claude Simon
Passing Time – Michel Butor
Waters of Potowmack – Paul Metcalf
stories – Flannery O’Connor
The Fire Next Time – James Baldwin
Pop. 1280 (1964) – Jim Thompson
Last Exit to Brooklyn (1964) – Hubert Selby, Jr.
The Death of the Detective (1974) – Mark Smith
Pas un Jour (2002) – Anne Garréta
various works – Pierre Senges
The Infatuations (2013) – Javier Marias (trans. Margaret Jull Costa)
The Coming of Print, 1450-1800 – Lucien Febvre
…. including these other titles, which I really think I should re-read.
La Princesse de Clèves (1678) – Madame de Lafayette (trans. Nancy Mitford (1951), New Directions)
The Trial (1913) – Franz Kafka
Jacob’s Room (1922) – Virginia Woolf
Molloy (1951) – Samuel Beckett
Hind’s Kidnap (1969) – Joseph McElroy
Coming Through Slaughter – Michael Ondaatje
A Tomb for Boris Davidovich (1978) – Danilo Kis
Cigarettes (1987) – Harry Mathews
Austerlitz (2001) – W.G. Sebald
Here’s wishing the best of years in reading — and all else — to you and your loved ones in 2015. (And thank you, reader, for reading this blog. Without you… it would just be a letter in the void.)
The list of books read this year, ordered chronologically by date of original publication. In bold are works I consider well worth their time, and even a second read. Also included is a list of what I project I’ll read (or want to read) in the year to come. (Why, by the way, in the flood of “year-end reading lists” that bloggers flood the Internet with as soon as December hits, don’t I see others making lists of what they envision ahead in the year to come? My projections from last year from last year turned out to be risibly inaccurate to what I eventually read, and so I for one wouldn’t place much stock in what I say I’ll read… For now these French classics look like bliss.)