We are running down favorite reads of 2013 from Quarterly Conversation contributors. This list comes from Andrew Seal, whose most recent contribution to The Quarterly Conversation is an essay on Franco Moretti.
To read all entries in this series, click here.
One novel I read this year could have given its title as a theme to nearly all my reading: Nadine Gordimer’s The Late Bourgeois World. This short novel, disquieted yet limpid, is Mrs. Dalloway set on the fringe of an anti-apartheid resistance cell, and like Woolf’s creation it balances a probing intelligence with a circumspection that never relents, the weight of an ambient middle class decorum.
Many who advocate for a more experimental literature probably consider this a world well lost (and the tradition’s current avatars, like Jonathan Franzen, do not help), but do we know what it was?
Two giants of literary criticism and theory, Franco Moretti and Fredric Jameson, issued their answers this year, and both are astounding works of insight and energy: Moretti’s The Bourgeois and Jameson’s The Antinomies of Realism.
But in some ways the sharpest answers to questions of literary history are always to be found in new literature rather than new criticism, and it seems to me that Karl Ove Knausgård’s much ballyhooed My Struggle is in essence an experiment in writing a full-throated bourgeois work under conditions which make that kind of work incoherent. I think it succeeds in ways that I am still sorting out, and I am very excited to see where it goes as more volumes become available in English.
Yet the most interesting framings of this question are being written by women, and I found Sheila Heti’s How Should a Person Be?, Claire Messud’s The Woman Upstairs, and Rachel Kushner’s The Flamethrowers to be an incredibly effective triptych in this regard. All three depict women attempting but unable to gain traction in a world of art: unable because the forms of resistance and accommodation which men before them customarily used to advance themselves are either unavailable to them as women or are losing their meanings and force among the crumbling bourgeoisie. Bohemianism, radicalism, selfishness, snobbery, promiscuity: are these any longer the traits of genius, or of an unredemptive instability? How are the rules different for women, and how are the rules just different now?