We are running down favorite reads of 2013 from Quarterly Conversation contributors. This list comes from Scott Esposito, who edits The Quarterly Conversation.
To read all entries in this series, click here.
I read these in preparation for an essay I wrote on Murnane for the journal Music & Literature (in itself a favorite read). The short novel The Plains is the book many consider to be Murnane’s finest. For me, he’s all about making maps of memory out of words, and The Plains may very well have the most challenging, irrational geography of them all. It is remarkable and beautiful, quotable on almost every page. I also read his collection of short prose, A History of Books. I frankly don’t know what to call these works: essays, short stories, memoir . . . none of those and all of them seem right.
A remarkable book for so many reasons, but my favorite—seeing the day-to-day life of a true outsider genius, to watch this great man find his artistic way, develop a circle of trusted friends, and discover the true meaning of his life’s work.
This volume is all about how Knausgaard falls in love with the woman he eventually marries, and it is foremost an extremely insightful, very moving and passionate description of the first months of a deep romance. But there is so much more in this book. Here Knausgaard invokes Dostoevsky and talks about his desires to live as an Ubermensch, versus the conformist dictates of modern society (as well as what he fears are his own inclinations toward conformism). It is a very honest, serious discussion of this question, the scenes in which he embodies this conversation on the page are among my favorites of the first three books of the sextet.
2013 will forever be remembered as the year I first read Virginia Woolf’s The Waves. What else is there to say? This is one of the greatest books I will ever read. Six individuals collectively narrating their lives as one long mutual monologue, aging from children to seniors. Woolf masters, simply masters, six individuals who, collectively approach universality. A true masterwork by one of the 20th century’s most radiant geniuses.
Marilynne Robinson has an awful lot to say about myth, science, America, literature, creativity, religion, the academy . . . she says it very well here, and frequently very originally. These pieces will re-arrange your mind, and the writing is beautiful.
This book is at once three things: an immaculately styled novel; a riddle on the level of Borges; and a compelling and original vision of hell. This is the sort of book you can live inside for quite some time.
This novel does a very rare thing: it is unabashedly and passionately political (and not only that, discussing the most important subject of our time—September 11, 2001 and the utterly destructive and futile War on Terror it unleashed), yet this politicking does not in the least diminish its literary experimentalism, which is of the highest order. A book that makes high art and high politics coexist—I never knew it could be done until Peter Dimock did it.
2013 was also the year that I got deeply in to Maurice Blanchot’s essays, namely The Gaze of Orpheus and Other Essays (in Lydia Davis’s translation) and The Infinite Conversation. There is so much to say about these works . . . I think I most appreciate Blanchot’s deep insights into what precisely writing is—how it occurs and what it means for the life of the writer—as well as his use of Western myth and archetype to articulate this process and the experience of reading.
Read “Axolotl” first, because it’s the first story in there and because you really owe yourself. If at that point you don’t feel like reading further, the next step would be to have your head examined.
I read this slim masterpiece in a few spellbound hours. From the epigraphs all the way through to the very last line, it was one of the most passionate, aesthetically whole books I read this year. Here form and substance are just as they should be—clearly and unambiguously one, just as thoroughly as the two bodies that entwine on almost every page (though never growing tiresome). A book that requires a most uncommonly honest author, a book of true insight into one of the rarest, most fleeting parts of the human condition.
Most anything you read by Balzac will be better than things not by him. That is just the way it is. His books always seem to begin with some description on French life that is utterly beside the point from perspective of plot yet is so aesthetically appealing that it just has to be in there. For The Girl with the Golden Eyes it’s a description of Parisian life; for Colonel Chabert, it’s the dialogue of clerks in a law office, showing just how amazing merely doing one’s job can be.
This is a collection of Sebald’s early essays. They stand somewhere between the academic criticism he wrote for the first decades of his life and the increasingly strange critical narratives he wrote in the last decades. A bridge I didn’t want to cross so much as gaze out from.
Before tackling this sizable book I hadn’t read much of Bolaño in Spanish, and nor had I read many of his short stories. So I was doubly in for a treat.
This book is a vault that opens up to contain an entire world. The question Krasznahorkai seeks to answer is how substances of this Earth become divine—that is, not of it—merely by the force of human artistry and the processes of civilization. For anyone who has ever stared at a grand work of art and felt all else in the world strip away for a moment, this book is for you.
This year was my introduction to Walter Abish, a writer who reminds me of Harry Mathews for his Oulipian tendencies, his exceedingly quirky plots, and his economical, utterly effective sentences. I never quite figured out what the “it” in the title of the first book referred to—the Holocaust, obviously, much much too obviously, but also so much more. And the latter is a tragicomedy set in Mexico (one of the most tragically comic countries on the face of the Earth) and starring . . . wait for it . . . a literary critic. Shudders.
A short piece I was writing for the TLS and a flight to New York City finally got me to read virtually all of the short prose of Walser that has been translated so far. It was a bracing few weeks into one of the most singular literary minds of the 20th century. Of Walser, Benjamin said something along the lines that his prose disappears behind you as you read it. Indeed, and never so much as in his short fictions.
These are Ruefle’s essays. I think I admire them most because they each have the feel of something Ruefle just put together in a spare hour or so. I mean that they feel so incidental, so stitched together with whatever happened to be at hand, so casual in their composition. That sense of casualness is very difficult to obtain, particularly when you are attempting to capture quantities as elusive as those Ruefle is pursuing here.
Personae is very, very far away from De La Pava’s first novel, A Naked Singularity, yet they are clearly the work of the same literary intellect. Both show the same aching honesty and the same drive toward literary artistry and genuine risk-taking. I hope De La Pava never stops taking risks as a writer.
To think that before this year I had never (to my knowledge) read Simon Leys. As though I had said—this year I drank my first cup of coffee, or this year I saw my first flake of snow. Leys is just as essential. After him, your literary world will not be the same. So convenient then that NYRB Classics has collected nearly 600 pages of his essays for you in one volume. What are you waiting for?
Immersing yourself in the work of a great writer is a sure way to discover that writer’s faults. Davis is a great writer, great enough that I cared to keep reading her and reading her and reading her until at long last I had seen past the brilliance to her weaknesses. So few writers can maintain a reader’s interest that long. So few can make serious enough aesthetic statements to inspire serious disagreement. And barely any can stand up to 30 years’ worth of work being consumed in one long python-like meal.
The authentic heir to Pynchon was born in Bucharest and penned the first volume of his might trilogy in the last 1990s. I hope they sell a ton of these so Archipelago manages to translate the other two or else I might have to learn Romanian.
There is so much to this book—the language, the series of unforgettable set-pieces, the eternal truths about civilization, wandering, love, comradeship—but here is my favorite: Virgil does a thing I’ve only ever seen Milton do, which is to take a story whose end is already foretold—foretold because an omnipotent deity has already ensured the final outcome—to take such a story and make it ring with a riveting suspense that is perhaps the greatest argument we have that free will does exist.
Plutarch wanted to know why the great men are great (alas, it’s all men here), so he condensed their lives down to about 30,000 words each, telling them through the incidents that best revealed their inner character. The result is historically fascinating, frequently full of the pathos of Shakespearian tragedy, and incredibly educational. Plutarch also twins most of his lives—one Greek, one Roman—perhaps to show how much was borrowed, or how civilization develops, or just how much history repeats.
Truly and indisputably the work of a mind unprecedented in the history of the world, and never to be repeated again. And Pinsky does a remarkable job with it.
This is John Searle’s short account of Western humanity’s understanding of where consciousness comes from, starting with Descartes and ending with Searle and his contemporaries. Searle grapples with some of the biggest questions—causality, free will, idealism vs materialism—and for each he gives very well-thought-out, very original arguments.
This was the year I discovered Rodrigo Rey Rosa. He is a complete and utter minimalist, which means that you can read everything of his that’s been translated into English in a couple of days. So you could read them all maybe ten times in a month. Perhaps 100 or so times in a year. And yet you still won’t know what holds these tiny worlds so strongly together.
A philosophic inquiry into just what movies are—experiences, remembered memories, little chinks of postmodern consumer experience—and then a collection of readings of many of the major directors and films in some of the most beautiful critical language you will read. When I want to be inspired I open a page at random and read whatever it is I underlined there. I inevitably find an aphorism worthy of hours.
Two devastating novels by a Norwegian admired by, among many others, Karl Over Knausgaard. The first, about a blind, dying man living in a bathroom, strains toward Beckett. The second, my favorite Saeterbakken so far, is a story of suicide that moves toward horror.
A remarkable essay on translation, and then a beautiful demonstration of the principle of constraint used in literary translation. You probably knew that translation could amaze you, but did you think it could move you?