We are running down favorite reads of 2013 from Quarterly Conversation contributors. This list comes from Taylor Davis-Van Atta, whose most recent contribution to The Quarterly Conversation is an essay on the fiction of Stig Sæterbakken.
To read all entries in this series, click here.
A novel in 17 episodes, Seiobo There Below explores our insatiable desire to be loved, to achieve transcendence through any means, and to glimpse, however fleetingly, the sacred—and why we continually fail in our attempts to attain satisfaction. A kind of counterweight to Krasznahorkai’s other works so far available in English, which deal in madness and melancholy, Seiobo There Below is my favorite of the five and a major achievement for its author, its translator, and its editor.
Comprising six “fictions,” each a creative response to the definitive interpretation of a famous painting, Take a Closer Look is a daring investigation of the act of criticism and of our attempts to engage art with an appreciative eye. In challenging the widely accepted readings of each painting, Arasse exposes the many obstacles that obscure our appreciation of the paintings’ multiple (possible) meanings and of their creators’ (likely) true intentions. The book is beautifully illustrated, and Arasse’s erudite, quick, and often humorous prose is presented in a graceful translation by Alyson Waters. Take a Closer Look is the most creative and inspired book I’ve read about the act of thinking about art since Energy of Delusion by Viktor Shklovsky.
The first of Hilst’s books to appear in English, The Obscene Madame D is a lean and supercharged novel about an ostensibly mad woman—the titular Madame D, the “D” standing for dereliction—who, following the death of her lover, chooses to live out the remainder of her life in a nook under the staircase, choosing to exist in an increasingly abject state in a perverse pursuit of self-knowledge before finally choosing the dereliction of that pursuit as well. The Obscene Madame D was Hilst’s first attempt to radically challenge the limits of taste, form, and language. To our benefit, two more of Hilst’s novels—Letters from a Seducer and With My Dog-Eyes—are scheduled to appear in English in the coming months.
Sæterbakken’s last published novel centers around Karl Meyer, a middle-aged man who, prompted by the sudden suicide of his teenage son, is forced to confront his past disgraces and contemplate his complicity in his son’s death, all while enduring overwhelming feelings of grief. Raw, dark, and uncompromisingly honest, Through the Night features some of Sæterbakken’s finest writing and is perhaps his most powerful literary statement.
These two books served as my introduction to Mishima, whose work I’ve wanted to read for a long time. The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea is the story of a thirteen-year-old boy whose rabid devotion to his mother, who has recently taken a lover, leads him and his band of friends to commit a series of increasingly brutal acts. As commanding a performance as The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea is, Mishima’s powers of insight and style are all the more heightened and focused within the strict form of the Nō drama. The five plays in this collection all draw from traditional narratives/folk tales but bring a modern sensibility to the centuries-old form. Both of these books are seamlessly translated.
Clarice Lispector’s The Apple in the Dark, Can Xue’s Five Spice Street, Steven Moore’s The Novel: An Alternative History, Vol. 2, Jáchym Topol’s Gargling with Tar, Gabriel Josipovici’s What Ever Happen to Modernism? and Infinity: The Story of a Moment, and Octavio Paz’s The Other Voice.