Category Archives: favorite reads of 2011

Favorite Reads of 2011: The Blind Owl by Sadegh Hedayat

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The Blind Owl might be described as a cross between Kafka and Poe—there’s a definite creepy/Gothicness, but there’s also the sense of the void at the center of the modern world. It’s just a short book, but it has many outstanding features, and author Sadegh Hedayat is excellent at working his various motifs together like a musical composition.

Favorite Reads of 2011: The Notebooks of Malte Laudris Brigge by Rainer Maria Rilke

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I think out of everything I read in 2011, The Notebooks of Malte Laudris Brigge would have to be my single most favorite thing. I could tell that I was in for an exceptional experience when certain trusted reader friends of mine, seeing that I had picked up the book at San Francisco Public’s annual huge book sale, spoke of the book in the kind of reverential tones that are only elicited by books of the highest quality. The book is composed of what I suppose you would call “entries” in Brigge’s notebooks, but there’s really very little here that would make this book feel like a journal-as-novel. The thing about the book, however, is that despite any sort of organizing conceit, it really does feel very unified around—something . . . divining that center is part of the task. I really don’t know what this book is about, or even how it works; all I feel I can say after a first reading is simply that it radiates meaning as only the best books I read each year do and that there are literally scores of quotes that I underlined on even a first read . . .

“I don’t think there is such a thing as fulfillment, but there are wishes that endure, that last a whole lifetime, so that anyhow one couldn’t wait for their fulfillment.”

“. . . she could read for hours, she seldom turned a page, and I had the impression that the pages kept growing fuller beneath her gaze, as if she looked words onto them . . .”

“I, who even as a child had been distrustful of music (not because it lifted me out of myself more powerfully than anything else, but because I had noticed that it never put me back where it had found me, but lower down, somewhere deep in the uncompleted) . . .”

“. . . she immediately began to die, slowly and hopelessly, over the whole surface of her body.”

“I lay there, overloaded with myself, and waited for the moment when I would be told to pile all this back into myself, neatly and in the right order.”

“As if I hadn’t known that all our insights are added on later, that they are balance-sheets, nothing more. Right afterward a new page begins, with a completely different account, and no total carried forward.”

. . .

Favorite Reads of 2011: The Melancholy of Resistance by Laszlo Krasznahorkai

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Laszlo Krasznahorkai is one of the few authors I can seriously regard as today carrying on the work of the great modernists. The Melancholy of Resistance is a very hard book to pin down, but if anything it is about the energy, terror, seduction, and appeal of fascism. The book is about a Leviathan-like whale that comes to a town in Hungary, and how the spectacle of it exerts power over the masses and is used by the powers that be. Krasznahorkai’s long sentences are frequently remarked on, and they are great, but this book also includes a number of surprising and impressive point of view shifts (including one stretch from the consciousness of an angry crowd), as well as the book’s precise use of structure to tell a much larger tale than its size should allow.

Favorite Reads of 2011: Suicide by Edouard Leve

suicide

To introduce Suicide, here’s what I wrote at the top of my interview with the book’s translator:

Without a doubt, one of the best things I’ve read this year is a small book called Suicide. It was written by the contemporary French writer Edouard Levé, who, ten days after delivering the manuscript, in fact did commit suicide, but the book is not so much a suicide note or explanation as it is an exactingly wrought object.

It was only on a second reading that I was able to truly appreciate how precise the prose is, and how enigmatically this small book opens up to envelop you as a reader. If the suicide on the face of this book leads you to assume that only one interpretation of this book is impossible, everything in the book stands to refute it.

And from my review of the book:

Suicide would be an odd and noteworthy work even if Levé had not killed himself. It is constructed almost entirely from short, lithe sentences written in the second person. Ostensibly these sentences are being spoken by an acquaintance looking back after 20 years on a friend who killed himself, and they both describe this suicidal man and narrate small but meaningful anecdotes from his life. On a most basic level it is clear that the narrative voice is attempting to do what any survivor would after a suicide – fill the vacuum of meaning – yet the success of Suicide is that it verges on allegory, allowing much broader interpretations.

Levé uses all the tropes that we have come to associate with suicide, but he animates them in original ways. The suicide’s appearance and personality is detailed with uncommon sensitivity and scrupulousness, as are the feelings left behind in his friends and family. For example, a survivor’s wish to understand why a loved one would take his life – and the impossibility of ever getting that answer – is evoked with characteristic elegance when “you” leaves a comic book open to a certain spread just as he commits the act. This final comment for his survivors is lost when, in the panic of discovering the body, “you’s” wife knocks the comic down before recognising its significance. Later, “you’s” father will pore over the book and construct an elaborate file of theories based on each spread.

Favorite Reads of 2011: The Blood Oranges by John Hawkes

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How to explain the relative neglect of John Hawkes, beloved by both Leslie Fiedler and William H. Gass? His prose style is simply unmistakable, his grasp of structure constantly surprises you. I’ll quote Gass, who introduced me to Hawkes:

This is the effect of Hawkes’s fiction: It sees the world from just inside its surface, a surface at which it looks back the way Orpheus so dangerously did, thereby returning an unlamenting Eurydice to Hades. It is as if a wall were examining, from its steadfastly upright state, the slow peel of its paint. The position is unprecedented. And the final result is the merging of two surfaces, as if the print of this page were bleeding through the paper to shadow the obverse side . . .

With possibly the exception of Second Skin, I think The Blood Oranges is my favorite of Hawkes’ novels. Hawkes works with four main characters here, a feat for a 271-page book, and his look at the psychology of a lover’s orgy that they together embark on is simply magisterial. I can’t imagine how a writer without Hawkes’ soft touch would be able to bring out the nuanced emotions each of these characters expresses in this novel, nor be able to describe the power relations as their partner exchange slowly drifts into disaster. And to top it all, Cyril is in the tradition of Hawkes’ spectacularly unreliable narrators.

Favorite Reads of 2011: Never Any End to Paris by Enrique Vila-Matas

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I’m thrilled that New Directions seems to be investing in Enrique Vila-Matas. After bringing out a couple of his novels in 2007, this year they published the excellent Never Any End to Paris, and next year will see the publication of his Dubliesque, his most recent novel in Spanish. (One hopes after this they’ll start digging further into his rich backlist.)

Anyway, I’m going to outsource this recommendation to myself, since I already spent quite a bit of time this year writing about what a great book this is. First, from my review of the book:

Few writers would dare wear their influences so blatantly on their sleeve, yet Vila-Matas positively revels in his. Book after book, he plays his games with the same constellation of modernist heroes, high among them Proust and Borges, Kafka and Robert Walser. Vila-Matas’s pantheon is full of intellectual writers obsessed by negation and failure, writers who track an ever-shifting truth that they suspect can never be touched. Above all, they are writers who defy genre because they pursue a very personal quantity that can only be defined by their art. Vila-Matas joins them in their gloriously futile endeavour, but with a certain wry, goading playfulness that distinguishes him from his mostly melancholy peers.

And then, an interview I conducted with Vila-Matas for The Paris Review:

I love the sentiment of W. G. Sebald’s that you quote in Never Any End to Paris: “Everything our civilization has produced is entombed.” Like you, Sebald responded to modernism by opening this tomb, both of you recalling Borges, who you say “rewrote the old.” You look forward by looking back. I’m curious as to when and why you think this form of creativity became so important.

Borges, Sebald. The world seems to be full of messages written in some secret code. We look—I look—for something we can’t identify but that we have lost. Not long ago I dreamed of a poem written in some unknown algebra. It had a Kabbalistic air, Jewish, although maybe the air was Islamic, Chinese Islam, or maybe just Italian—from the time of Petrarch. This poetry was from a strange, stateless algebra that sent me to the center of the world’s mystery. Of course, perhaps this mystery never existed. As we look back in time, man and his activities seem diminished to the point of appearing completely insignificant. Any idea of a future dissolves. And this would explain, for instance, why the story of my youth in Paris, the portrait of my ambition to triumph there as Hemingway did, must be treated with a monumental irony, as well as a Cervantesque compassion.

Favorite Reads of 2011: The Sleepwalker by Margarita Karapanou

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Earlier this year I exhorted everyone to read Margarita Karapanou. And now I’m doing it again. The Sleepwalker is an amazing little book, certainly one of the leanest, most interesting pieces of writing you will have the pleasure of reading. (And huge praise to translator Karen Emmerich for the work she did with this author’s Greek.)

Let me offer two quotes to describe this book to you. First, from the Greek author Amanda Michalopoulou:

I was 19 years old, a student of French literature, when I read The Sleepwalker. I realized then that books can trap you in a different kind of reality, their own, which can be slower, stranger, more important that the reality we experience. This was a revelation for me. The other revelation was that people in novels like hers talk about the important things in life without statements, they just have casual dialogs that appear normal on the page and yet are basic truths that make you feel a bit dizzy, like you had a lot of wine. This feeling has never changed.

And from my own short review in the Review of Contemporary Fiction:

Karapanou’s book feels like a naïve form of modernism, each of the text’s short, storylike chapters a work of bricolage built from the diverse materials circulating in her cluttered mind. Like the best art, her plots unfold without self-consciousness or apparent purpose, yet they resist simple interpretations and have an impressive structural solidity. Her extremely muscular, tight prose makes a fine medium for the book’s relentlessly surreal, breathtakingly complex happenings, reminiscent of a Latin-inflected Pynchon. Though the book thus described may sound like a mess, The Sleepwalker in fact exudes a sense of strong thematic unity in its slow, relentless progress toward apocalypse—which, when it does arrive, is just as rich, satisfying, and inevitable as everything that has led up to it.

Favorite Reads of 2011: The Man of Feeling by Javier Marias

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When I was working on my half of Lady Chatterley’s Brother earlier this year, I read a whole lot of Javier Marias. And while I could easily recommend to you A Heart So White or Tomorrow in the Battle Think on Me, I’m going to put in for The Man of Feeling, because I get the idea that it’s often neglected vis a vis Marias’ later works. This is the first book of what I’ve come to call Marias’ “mature phase” as a writer, and though it’s much smaller than the books that would come later in Marias’ career, it does do a lot of justice to the core themes that have come to personify his work. It’s also a great little story. If you’re new to Marias, it’s a great introduction, and if you’ve already read a lot of Marias, it might be one you’ve missed so far.

Favorite Reads of 2011: The Master Switch by Tim Wu

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The premise that The Master Switch is dedicated to demonstrating is that the Internet is not such an unprecedented democratization of expression as we customarily believe: in fact, the TV, radio, and film media were all at one time considered to offer similar potential as the Internet now does, and each was subsequently straitjacketed by a consortia of powerful media players. In The Master Switch, Columbia Law School professor Tim Wu makes the case that each of these media have more or less conformed to a cycle of initial promise and openness to closure and consolidation, which the Internet is now replicating. And indeed, with big media power grabs like the “Stop Online Piracy Act” now gaining considerable support in Congress, Wu’s thesis is all too provable. This book is more than just a hugely interesting study of the emergence and consolidation of various media in an advanced, 20th-century society—it’s something that people who love and care about the Internet that now exists should read so that they will be informed and can fight back.

Along with this you can read the similarly themed The Future of the Internet—And How to Stop It by Jonathan Zittrain and Understanding Media by Marshall McLuhan.

Favorite Reads of 2011: My Two Worlds by Sergio Chejfec

I already mentioned this one in a “favorite reads” post I did for The Millions. My Two Worlds is truly large, and deep, and expansive, even though it’s just over 100 pages long. It felt so new and unpinnable that I had a hard time writing about it, even though I also felt that the book had much in it that could be written about. In my opinion, that’s a sign of something potent.

I eventually did write about it, right here.

My Two Worlds is a dance, a seduction that draws us right up to the palpable center and then fades away to the margin, drawing one back toward that center before fading into another marginal space – back and forth, round and round. It is that same haze of thought one feels when hovering around an idea that remains unelucidatable. Yet the book is merely Chejfec’s thoughts over the course of a walk. It is two hours of serpentine meditation, that same maddening dart and weave between significance and insignificance, transcendence and babble.

The best description for the book – one that might also be suitable for Sebald – is to call My Two Worlds a fragmentation of gazes. As with Sebald, mundane objects play a central role in provoking the narrator’s curiosity: the action of the book gets underway when, looking at his map and preparing to make his trip to the park, the narrator becomes fixated by “the great green blotch, as I called it.” On the map he sees “a small black 9 printed at the heart of the park . . . it strengthened my resolve to visit the park.” These are just the type of everyday, slightly obscure details that might become the object of anyone’s irrational fixation, giving the book an odd realism.

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