Taylor Davis-Van Atta contributed an essay on Stig Sæterbakken to the Winter 2013 issue of The Quarterly Conversation.
1. Barley Patch & A History of Books by Gerald Murnane
I’ll package these two books as a single recommendation because Murnane wrote them more or less concurrently and they read as companion volumes or as a sort of hall of mirrors. Nobody I know of writes even remotely like Murnane, an author who is forever obsessed with the way in which his mind forms and re-forms (and re-forms over and over again) memories as patterns of images, and moreover how his mind then transmutes these patterns into highly structured, multi-layered literature that precisely mimics “the contour of thought.” A perennial candidate for the Nobel (in no small part because a good deal of his work has been translated and hailed in Sweden), I think Murnane is set to begin cultivating a solid readership in the States and elsewhere over the next couple of years provided U.S. publishers continue to take on his work and/or his Australian publishers continue to digitize and disseminate his back catalog. His eleventh book, Border Districts, is set for publication in Australia in 2013.
2. Satantango by László Krasznahorkai
For me, Satantango is the publishing event of 2012. Satantango is not quite the chaotic, labyrinthine experience that Krasznahorkai’s later novels War and War and The Melancholy of Resistance are, but we are still offered the unique pleasure of plunging into those long, fractured, turbulent sentences and watching a simple story quickly turn nightmarishly dark and complex. Hats off to the great poet and translator George Szirtes for his rendering. I’m very much looking forward to reading Seiobo There Below in 2013 (New Directions).
3. Perspectives USA, vol. 1, ed. James Laughlin (1952)
I admire the ambition behind this publication as much as the material presented in it. Founded in 1952 by James Laughlin with funding from the Ford Foundation, Perspectives USA was a cultural magazine launched with the mission of countering popular world perception of U.S. culture (i.e. Americans as nothing but a bunch of oversexed, Beach Boy-crazed, rollerskating gum-chewers). “Various misconceptions exist about American culture abroad,” Laughlin writes in the introduction to this first volume, “and a distortion of its values has built up, quite as often by the shortcomings of its own phenomena (Hollywood, comic books) as by antagonistic political propaganda. It will be a main function of Perspectives to show that the spiritual and artistic elements in American life have not been sterile.” A really incredible undertaking, the magazine was published quarterly and each volume published simultaneously in English, French, German, Italian, and Spanish (!) and distributed around the world. The contributors are familiar to any reader of those early New Directions years: WC Williams, Faulkner, Marianne Moore, Kenneth Rexroth, Edward Dahlberg, etc. The magazine lasted only 16 issues and ended after the Ford Foundation cut off funding, citing Perspectives as having “had limited impact.”
4. The Novel: An Alternative History: Beginnings to 1600 by Steven Moore
For years I’d been hearing rumors about some ambitious, multi-volume project Steven Moore had undertaken to propose an alternate history of the novel, so my hopes were running high when this first volume was announced. Suffice it to say, even with my hopes ramped up, what Moore has produced in this volume far exceeded my expectations. Over some 700 pages, Moore covers long form literature dating from the Ancient Egyptians (beginning with “Tale of Sinuhe,” written in 20thC BCE) to Japanese and Chinese behemoths written around 1600CE — and all of it written before Don Quixote, which was proclaimed by Harold Bloom as “the first modern novel” and widely adopted as such since. An Alternative History is a truly astonishing achievement that not only blew the walls from my conception of the novel form (which I though was pretty liberal to begin with) but that, even more remarkably, offered a radical type of criticism and way of talking about books that I had not previously encountered. Moore’s style is as ambitious and forceful and revolutionary as his argument. This is a book I’ll return to for many years to come. I understand that Volume 2 of this remarkable is set to appear soon, perhaps as early as 2013.
5. Madness, Rack, and Honey: Collected Lectures by Mary Ruefle
Maddeningly brilliant. Just ask Michael Silverblatt, who had Ruefle on as a Bookworm guest twice (a rare achievement for any writer) this past year. Ruefle is, to my mind, America’s greatest living poet and these lectures (many of which I had the great privilege of hearing Ruefle deliver) provide rare insight to the elusive mechanics of poetry and her inner-workings. Ruefle’s eleventh (I believe) book of poetry, Trances of the Blast, is set for release in 2013 (Wave Books).