- Speedboat & Pitch Dark, Renata Adler
2013 was a good year for Adler. Sure, it took a couple of years and NYRB re-publications, but her two wonderful novels, Speedboat and Pitch Dark are finally being given the due they deserve. Adler’s prose is precision sharp, psychologically dense (& as a result quite real), and nothing really feels particularly dated in either book. Pitch Dark is arguably a bit better, but the bursts of Speedboat are more explosive & make it a better starting point.
- Seiobo There Below, László Krasznahorkai
Krasznahorkai’s most recent book is, let’s be blunt, his greatest so far. And, in truth, it’s probably the greatest thing published in English this year. You think I’m exaggerating, but I am not. The man is a wizard, and he pulls off audacious, seemingly pretentious maneuvers like twenty-page sentences, such that you quickly lose sight of the audacity and find yourself instead wherever he damn well wants you. Beauty and horror never so much collide or come at odds in Krasznahorkai’s world, nor are they infused or resolved dialectically. They somehow interpenetrate the other in unbalanced, sometimes grotesque ways. Seiobo There Below repeatedly rehearses precisely how this looks, and I could not look away.
- Middle C, William H. Gass
William H. Gass’ final novel is, strangely, one of the finest ways to introduce yourself to his work. The academics of AUFS, you who pretend or play the role for real, if there is a difference, may especially appreciate this one. If you’re interested, I wrote a review of it elsewhere. This is an interesting companion novel, of sorts, to Seiobo There Below.
- Kafka: The Years of Insight, Reiner Stach
The second volume of Stach’s (eventual) three-volume project covers the final years of Kafka’s life (1916 to 1924), and essentially tells the story of Kafka’s visions of the world and of himself coming true. Stach’s biography succeeds where so many fail because his sense of narrative is impeccable and doesn’t succumb to sentimentality.
Not technically a book, but I for a long period this year obsessed with these sermons. No reason to say much. I’ll just quote a bit, from “Mystical Bedlam (or, The World of Madmen)”
There is mortality in that flesh thou so deckest, and that skin which is so bepainted with artificial complexion shall lose the beauty and itself. Detrahetur novissimum velamentum cutis. You that sail betwixt heaven and earth in your four-sailed vessels, as if the ground were not good enough to be the pavements to the soles of your feet, know that the earth shall one day set her foot on your necks, and the slime of it shall defile your sulphured bodies. Dust shall fill up the wrinkled furrows which age makes and paint supplies. Your bodies were not made of the substance whereof the angels; nor of the nature of the stars, nor of the matter, whereof the fire, air, water, and inferior creatures. Remember your tribe, and your fathers poor house, and the pit whereout you were hewn. Hannibal is at the gates, death stands at your doors; be not proud, be not mad: you must die.
- Trances of the Blast, Mary Ruefle
Some of the poems in this new collection literally had me trembling a bit. I particularly like Ruefle’s ability to layer absurdity and insight and shuffle dark humor and deadpan sorrow. One of my favorites is called “Spider”:
The spider can barely walk, his legs are so scared –
he’s got to get from the bar of soap to the uppermost
showerstall tile that is his home, and he has suffered
a betrayal so great he’s lost in his own neighborhood,
crawling on his hands and knees, so to speak, in and out
of the shadows of other tiles he’s passed before but
barely recognizes, given his state of shock and disbelief.
Spiders don’t hear very well — he can’t hear the rain
as it falls and cools his flaming legs, the distant screams
of another’s crisis means nothing to him, he can’t hear
his own heartbeat, an alarm casting his skeleton straight
into hell, his blood ignited by the bellows of loss.
If the gods implore him to hold his saliva, he doesn’t
hear them, he goes on crawling toward the one safe spot,
which has become, in his mind, the destination of his life
and this night rolled into one, a wet bag at the bottom
of which, were it to fall, would lie his demise –
too awful to discuss.
- The Roving Shadows, Pascal Quignard
This one simply defies explanation — and I’ve tried, repeatedly. A meditation on old, forgotten practices — particularly as they relate to reading. “To set the lost afire with loss – this, properly speaking, is what it is to read.” What does he mean? Well, who knows really. It’s a perplexing book, a journey whose end is but a pause. If W. G. Sebald were French this might be the sort of thing he’d have written.
- My Struggle: Book Two: A Man in Love, Karl Ove Knausgaard
Knausgaard’s enormous six-volume memoir is, let’s be clear, infuriating for a lot of people. I’ve met enough people who simply cannot stand inhabiting his head-space. And to be clearer still: these people are completely justified. The first two volumes of My Struggle simply should not work. And yet, for me (and a good many others), it is mesmerizing. It perhaps says something poor of a good many of us that we can identify with Knausgaard’s struggles to balance his artistic sensibilities with the workaday stuff of life — not least his loathing embrace of bourgeois life. He offers no answers, as he seems mostly to flail in his efforts. (I can’t help but hear the voice of Louis C.K. when I read him.) His writing often seems so sloppy and haphazard, but there is a craftsmanship at work here that I think sets the contemporary memoir on its head.
- Life, A User’s Manual, Georges Perec
Kind of fun to read Perec’s masterpiece in conjunction with Knausgaard’s book, if only to wash away all the Proust comparisons made of the latter. I’d been meaning to read this one for years, and was so very happy I finally did so. One of the quintessential “rewards multiple readings” books.
- Imaginations, William Carlos Williams
Similar to the situation with Perec, I’d somehow managed up until this year never to read Williams’ prose. A tremendous oversight on my part. Anger boils over into a joy that leads to intoxication which awakes to a dream that wakes you up anger all over again. Williams has been academized a bit, it seems. His poetry turned into a textbook. But I like to think there’s something more savage in the prose.
- “The Glass Essay,” Anne Carson
I resisted for a long time, but I finally gave myself over to Anne Carson a bit this year. “The Glass Essay” was what won me over.
- Junkets on a Sad Planet: Scenes from the Life of John Keats, Tom Clark
- The Novel: An Alternative History, 1600-1800, Steven Moore
Have I read every page of this behemoth? No. Will I ever? Maybe not. Am I happy to have it all? You bet. Moore is doing the Lord’s work with his encyclopedic knowledge of what the novel was, is, could’ve been, and might yet be. He’s documenting a life’s research, and we are the better for it.
- The H. D. Book, Robert Duncan
Similar story with this one. I’ve been making may way through it for the past two years now, and keep finding new treasures along the way. Duncan and H.D. are sages of a sort, each with an earthy sort of mysticism that, admittedly, few have much time for anymore. Which is why I read, I suppose . . .
- Basically anything by H.D.