Hosted, as always, by Rebecca of Bookish Beck, posting on the last Monday of each month. I’ve been trying to plow through some TBR titles this month, so there haven’t been that many library books, but here’s what I have checked out!
Transcendent Kingdom, by Yaa Gyasi (2020): I borrowed this as an ebook as backup for our return flight from San Francisco, but ended up reading it in the days after our return. In short: wonderful. I already knew how much love this story of Ghanaian-American addiction researcher Gifty, her dead brother Nana, and their clinically depressed mother had received, but it was a whole other thing to read it for myself. Gyasi’s first novel, Homegoing, was impressive but in retrospect felt a bit worthy; Transcendent Kingdom, by contrast, is full of strange corners, moments where the love of God, the love of family, and the love of science mix and meld and crash into each other. Gifty feels like a real person: driven, defensive, and trying her best. This ought to have won at least one prize the year it came out. (It was up against Hamnet and Shuggie Bain for the two big ones. I think it’s more interesting than, and just as technically accomplished as, the former; haven’t read the latter.)
Americanah, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (2013): Read for The Great Reread project, and also as a buddy read with my mum, whose book club is discussing it this month. A fantastic revisit to a book I remembered loving but whose details had faded with time; reading it in 2023 feels like hopping into a time machine, in a really moving and effective way. I wrote a lot more about it here.
The Case of the Gilded Fly, by Edmund Crispin (1944): A Golden Age-ish murder mystery which I read after an initial foray into Crispin’s work with The Moving Toyshop. TMT was interesting enough but left me frustrated by its pervasive attitude of condescension towards women, and I wanted to see if this was a hallmark of Crispin’s writing more broadly. In short: unfortunately, yes. (Actually, TCotGF is worse in some ways, demonstrating not just condescension but outright misogyny in its treatment of a murder victim whose universal obnoxiousness seems to be based on her identity as a sexually aggressive, socially catty woman.) Although both mysteries were tantalising puzzles, I don’t think I shall be returning to Crispin in future.
She Who Became the Sun, by Shelley Parker-Chan (2021): Absolutely loved this, a queer retelling of the rise of Zhu Yuanzhang, first emperor of the Ming Dynasty. What a way to get the taste of Edmund Crispin’s gender politics out of my brain. In Parker-Chan’s version, Zhu is a girl who takes her brother’s identity when her family dies in a famine, and rises from novice monk to commander of the Red Turbans, an army of indigenous Chinese who challenged the ruling (and invading) Mongols. Very well written, with a lot to say about power, fate, the value of the unexpected. A sequel is releasing this year and I will definitely be reading it. I wrote more about it here.
The Dawn of Everything, by David Graeber and David Wengrow (2021): This was an alternate history of, well, everything, that I was very keen to read until I came across some criticism of Graeber’s methodologies that accused him of cherry-picking and misrepresentation. That shook my confidence somewhat, and then the introductory chapter didn’t grab me enough to make me want to keep reading all 700 pages of the thing (especially as this was an ebook, a format I read almost exclusively on my phone).
In Ascension, by Martin MacInnes (2023): It’s possible this is my first 2023-published read of the year! How times have changed. Anyway, loving it, hopefully more when I’ve finished.
Without precisely meaning to, I notice I’ve read quite a few novels that are fantasy or speculative fiction recently, and quite a few novels by women of colour, and at least three where the categories overlap. One of these is a hangover from February that I never got around to writing about; the other two are March reads. I’m hesitant to draw any sweeping thematic links between them, a) because they’re all quite different, and b) because that seems reductive, but something they do all seem to offer is a vision of alterity, whether that’s in terms of foregrounding non-European-inflected societies, women and non-binary people creating or exploiting unexpected societal niches for themselves, the promotion of radical community, or the casual, at-face-value inclusion of supernatural occurrences in otherwise apparently realist worlds.
Actually, the more I think about this, the more I think there’s also something in here about the power of absolute conviction in your own greatness combined with very hard work. It’s certainly there in the Butler (with Lauren’s quietly growing certainty in the rightness of Earthseed and what she must do to nurture its growth), and the Parker-Chan (which is very fresh in my memory: Zhu’s entire life is a result of her intense effort to reach a destiny she wholeheartedly believes in), and the Roanhorse too has a character who becomes a kind of Chosen One partly because he’s so unshakeably sure that he’s meant to be one.
Anyway, here they are.
Black Sun, by Rebecca Roanhorse(2020): A fantasy based on pre-Columbian Mesoamerican cultures and mythologies, this begins with a banger of a prologue in which a woman ties her pre-adolescent son to a chair, sews his eyelids shut, then jumps off a cliff. I’ve rarely read something that so instantly had my attention. Her reasons for doing this are revealed as the book goes on; Serapio, the boy, has a destiny to fulfill. Two other primary point-of-view characters—pansexual, hard-drinking, highly skilled sea captain and part-mermaid Xiala, and slum-girl-made-Sun-Priest Naranpa—aid and oppose that destiny, though neither’s story is made subservient to Serapio’s. Roanhorse is good on pre-colonial gender and sexuality, from the Western-assumption-destabilising men’s fashions (skirts, leggings) to the range of non-binary gender identities. Lots of drama, lots of political intrigue, just enough snark: this was hugely enjoyable, and I’m frustrated that the sequel, Fevered Star, isn’t in my local library system in any medium.
Parable of the Sower, by Octavia E. Butler (1993): I had read the sequel to this, the almost painfully apt Parable of the Talents, in mid-2020. You don’t have to have read Sower to enjoy it, but having read Sower, Talents felt deeper and richer to me in retrospect. Talents is about a self-sufficient commune called Acorn in northern California during a period of intense social unrest in a speculative version of the early twenty-first century, after a nakedly authoritarian President is elected and instates a form of theocracy. Parable of the Sower shows us how the Acorn community is founded: by an eighteen-year-old woman named Lauren Olamina, whose loss of Christian faith has been replaced by a slow discovery of the truths of what she calls Earthseed, and whose entire family is killed when their walled neighbourhood—which has been providing intra-community support as the world has gotten worse—is attacked. Most important among the Earthseed tenets is “God is Change”, and the belief that humans can shape God, as well as vice versa.
Sower is the kind of book I couldn’t have read a year ago, because it would have played straight into my then-pathological expectation of civilisational collapse via incremental worsening of climate crisis and income inequality. The early chapters of Lauren’s narration show with sickening clarity just how such a thing could come about. It’s great, but it’s tough: there’s a lot of violence, though it’s not terribly graphic. Butler was also interested in transgressive sex throughout her oeuvre, and Sower is no exception: Lauren takes fifty-seven-year-old Bankole as a lover, and later a husband. This development manages not to be creepy, mostly because Lauren is so unshakeably self-assured in her desires. It’s entirely her driving force that brings together the band of refugees that becomes the first Acorn, and she drives it because she wants a place from which to propagate her new religion. She is as sure of her rightness as any prophet has ever been. It’s fascinating and slightly terrifying stuff. I do love Butler.
She Who Became the Sun, by Shelley Parker-Chan (2021): This is definitely strongest in my memory, since I finished it this morning (and only started it the morning before!) It’s a queer retelling of the rise of Zhu Yuanzhang, the first Ming Emperor. In Parker-Chan’s retelling, Zhu is a girl who takes her dead brother’s identity after her whole family starves in a famine. A fortune-teller has predicted “greatness” for her brother’s future, and “nothing” for hers, so in taking his identity, she also decides to take his fate. How she survives in the local monastery, and rises after the monastery’s destruction—by General Ouyang, a eunuch who fights for the Mongol emperor despite being ethnically Han Chinese (yes, there’s a big backstory there)—makes up the meat of the book. I absolutely loved this, I should say right now. Zhu is a fantastic character: something that often ruins historically-set novels for me is the authorial desire to make their characters somehow removed from the cultural values and priorities of their society, and Parker-Chan never does that with Zhu. She believes in the necessity of tricking Heaven—that there is another world and her deceit might be noticed by it, but also that it might not. The fantasy element helps here. Zhu can see ghosts, as can all of those who have the Mandate of Heaven (the right to rule). There’s never any doubt that the coloured fire springing from the hands of the Prince of Radiance (a child said to be the reincarnation of a Manichaean divinity, based on Han Lin’er) is real; the same is true of the pure brilliance that Zhu develops the ability to emanate. It’s a really satisfying, convincing way to write historically-set fiction, I think. Of course it’s true; it was true for them.
There are other great characters: the profoundly empathetic Ma Xiuying, who becomes Zhu’s wife (and will become Empress); General Ouyang, whose family’s destruction fuels his quest for revenge at the same time as it destroys him from within; Esen, the kind but entitled Mongol prince whom Ouyang serves and betrays; Wang Baoxiang, Esen’s adopted brother, whose administrative talents keep the army and the region afloat but who is dismissed as a non-warrior by everyone around him. So much to think about in terms of power, violence, and fate! There’s a sequel coming out this year and I will definitely read it.
On the Eve, by Ivan Turgenev, transl. Michael Pursglove (1860 ). Evidently one of Turgenev’s least successful novels, and I can sort of see why. Based on a story given to him by a young soldier of his acquaintance who thought he was about to die in the Crimea, it reminded me structurally of Tolstoy’s Resurrection: the bit of the plot that ought to be the most interesting occurs right at the end and gets virtually no development. Insarov, a Bulgarian fighting for the liberation of his homeland from the Ottoman Turks, captures the heart of young and idealistic Yelena; she leaves home, family, and two suitors (the irrepressible sculptor Shubin and the studious Berzyenev) to secretly marry Insarov. They travel to western Europe and try to return to Bulgaria when full-scale war breaks out, but Insarov dies of complications from pneumonia in Venice. Yelena vows to carry on his life’s work, becomes a nurse with the Sisters of Mercy, writes a farewell letter to her family, and disappears. Those last two sentences take about three chapters to wrap up and form something of an epilogue to the main action of the book, which is much more fully involved in the development of Yelena’s and Insarov’s love for each other, often focalised through the eyes of the sympathetic and devoted Berzyenev. Why?! The romance-of-manners is an infinitely less interesting, potential-filled story than that of Yelena’s independent choice, flight, and life after widowhood. If the novel had started with their arrival in Venice, or just before, it could have been something genuinely extraordinary. It’s hard not to shake the suspicion that Turgenev doesn’t do that because he can’t conceive of a woman as the avowed hero of a story (despite the fact that most critics, at the time of its publication, recognised Yelena as more interesting by far than Insarov). The first disappointment I’ve had with Turgenev’s work, which in itself says a lot about the usual quality of his writing.
Ward No. 6 and Other Stories, by Anton Chekhov, transl. Ronald Hingley (OWC edition 1998). My first Chekhov collection, but it won’t be my last. The translation by Ronald Hingley is brilliant: spirited, vivid, idiomatic, it makes all of the characters feel immediate. (His introduction is a bit weird; a lot of the page count is spent defending Chekhov against charges of political apathy, which feels a bit like academic bee-bonnet-having.) Of course, Chekhov’s writing is largely responsible for that immediacy, too: he’s so efficient, without ever giving the impression of thinness or underdevelopment. “The Butterfly” and “Ariadne” both have a faintly misogynistic flavour to them, about shallow women who desire only admiration and who ruin good men, but other tales—”A Dreary Story”, “An Anonymous Story”, and “Neighbours” in particular—show women in a more complex and human light. Men, particularly educated men, in these stories come off poorly: the doctor-narrator of a “A Dreary Story”, who is dying, cannot connect with his emotions enough to show his foster-daughter Katya the love he really feels; the would-be revolutionary assassin in “An Anonymous Story” bottles his task (though more out of an excess of humanity than out of any character failing, I think); the protagonist of “Neighbours” is stymied by his sister’s calm determination to live with a married man. “Ward No. 6”, which gives the collection its title, is a fantastically effective story of another doctor, Ragin, whose philosophical indifference to life gives way almost immediately when he experiences genuine trouble and suffering, and the so-called madman, Ivan Gromov, who both diagnoses Ragin’s spiritual failing and outlives him. “Doctor Startsev” ends the collection on a rather sad note of provinciality and wasted opportunity, in which a local doctor’s proposal of marriage is rejected by a woman ambitious to become a professional musician; several years later, she has changed her mind, but by then it’s too late for both of them. These characters and their voices felt the most real, in their strangeness, of almost any Russian writers’ that I’ve read so far. The world doesn’t need me to tell it that Chekhov’s reputation is well deserved, but, for what it’s worth, it totally is.
At first glance these two might not appear obvious companions. Published eighty-nine years apart, one traces the profound convolutions that led up to JFK’s assassination, “the moment that broke the back of the American century”, while simultaneously questioning the value of attempting to create narrative around such moments at all; the other is a naturalist novel with a much more straightforward style about the human failings that destroy a marriage, but may also destroy the dream of the American West, even America itself. What links them, to my mind, is that sense of individual experience being used to make wider comments about the sweep and nature of history, and about the particularities of the American national project. In the order I read them, then:
Libra, by Don DeLillo (1988): This is probably best known as DeLillo’s Lee Harvey Oswald novel. It does, in fact, follow Oswald from his childhood—deprived, fatherless, with a hardworking but also whiny and overbearing mother—through his youthful reading of communist literature, his enlistment in the Marines, his development of leftist convictions and his defection to Soviet Russia, where he marries a Russian woman but returns to the US after only a few years. Libra parallels this strand with a narrative set in the eighteen months leading up to Kennedy’s assassination, in which disillusioned CIA operatives, furious about a perceived lack of support for anti-communist Cuban fighters during the Bay of Pigs fiasco, hatch a plan to stage an attempted murder of the president and pin it on the Castro regime. At some point along the line, the “attempted” part of this plan disappears; it’s never clear how, why, or who is responsible for the change. This is in keeping with Libra as a stylistic whole, which DeLillo constructs as two basically coherent agglomerations of many different individual thoughts, perspectives, and obsessive tics. (Jack Ruby can’t stop asking people if they think he’s “a queer”; Oswald’s mother can’t stop presenting her inner monologue as if it’s testimony in front of a juvenile court judge.)
Over the course of the novel, DeLillo returns again and again to the idea of history as an unstoppable force, but also as something that a person can enter suddenly, usually by means of violence. The sense of Oswald as somehow destined to be the man who shoots the president is presented to us, but also undermined, both by DeLillo’s inclusion of the “gunman on the grassy knoll” (in Libra, this man is a disaffected Cuban, Raymo, working for a CIA-and FBI-supported but non-affiliated group called Alpha 66; Raymo’s head shot is what actually kills the president, though no one else in the novel knows this) and by a third plot strand set closer to the time of the book’s writing. In this, an analyst called Nicholas Branch attempts to collate a full, if secret, account of the assassination for the Agency. Branch is swamped by paper, the tiniest minutiae of the most vaguely connected individuals sent to him for assessment and inclusion. His task, he ultimately decides, is impossible and pointless: no accounting, no matter how full, can be full enough, and so it is self-defeating even to try. There is a moment of slightly-too-obvious narratorial intrusion in relation to this conclusion, in which history and fiction are explicitly compared. DeLillo doesn’t need it: his point—that an obsession with historical truth and completeness is inevitable in an age of increasing technological surveillance, and yet still futile—is already well made. Reading Libra is, nevertheless, an engrossing, thrilling, and saddening experience (it’s impossible not to conclude that Oswald, guilty though he was, was manipulated by absolutely everyone involved in the assassination plot). It may well make it onto my Books of the Year list.
McTeague: a Story of San Francisco, by Frank Norris (1899): The subtitle seems to me to be essential to Norris’s project here, which is not only to tell a story about a rather dim, if well-intentioned, working man who is elevated by love only for his and his wife’s innate flaws to ruin their happiness irreparably, but also to tie that story into the mythos of the American West characterised by the Gold Rush and, more specifically, by the city of San Francisco. The Bay Area has a long history of colonisation, but in 1848, gold was found in California, and within six years, the population of San Francisco had exploded from 200 souls to about 36,000. McTeague was the basis of a 1924 silent film (now mostly lost) entitled Greed, and that, I think, tells you a lot of what you need to know about the driving energy behind Norris’s novel.
The plot kicks into motion when McTeague’s fiancée, Trina (the wooing and winning of whom constitutes the novel’s first third, approximately), wins five thousand dollars by total chance in the national lottery. The sudden advent of wealth activates a latent but incredibly powerful innate miserliness in her character; she invests her windfall, hoards small change, lies to her husband about the amount of her savings. When McTeague’s jealous former best friend (and Trina’s former suitor), Marcus, informs City Hall that McTeague is practicing dentistry without a college degree or license, he is forced into unemployment. Neither of our two protagonists has the strength of character for the love of their early married days to withstand hard times, and they swiftly slide into penury, drink, and physical abuse. Meanwhile, their degeneration is paralleled with two other couples. There is the elderly, shy Old Grannis and Miss Baker, who live in the same tenement building, and whose delicate late-life romance is mostly unspoken. Then there is Maria Macapa, the building’s Mexican maid, who tells tales of a phenomenally valuable gold dinner service supposedly once owned by her ancestors; she marries the Jewish junk-man Zerkow, whose obsession with her stories of gold starts out unhealthy and quickly becomes pathological and abusive in its turn. Maria and Zerkow are both unfortunate racist caricatures, while McTeague and Trina are caricatures of the poor and ignorant (although I find this angle much less interesting than Jerome Loving, in his introduction to the Oxford World’s Classics edition of McTeague, appears to).
What interests me more is Norris’s reliance on symbolism: gold, entrapment, death. McTeague carries a songbird in a little gilt cage wherever he goes, and it makes him identifiable enough to lead to his downfall at the novel’s end. Trina’s love of money becomes almost explicitly masturbatory, including scenes during which she pours out her savings on the bed, rolls around on it naked, sleeps on it, and puts gold pieces in her mouth. Maria (who makes a habit of stealing from tenants) is eventually murdered by Zerkow in a frenzy of goldlust and frustration. The final two chapters, which are oddly unnecessary but fascinating, take us right out of the city into mining and cattle country, where gold is king, and eventually into Death Valley, where the baroquely awful fate of McTeague is sealed. It’s not a subtle novel, but it’s extremely interested in the destructive power of avarice, and makes its point by connecting the relationship of two individuals to the tides of change sweeping a nation, while the vivid character work and Norris’s grasp of descriptive detail make it compelling reading. It would be a very apt novel for high school literature classes, I think—there’s enough obvious symbolism and thematic material to make it useful for teenagers learning how to parse texts, but it also feels thrilling and lively and (crucially) a bit weird, much more so than hoary old Of Mice and Men. I wonder why it’s not taught more often?
Seems like this might, amongst other things, be the year of Italo Calvino: I enjoyed The Complete Cosmicomics immensely, and also felt there might be more dimensions to Calvino’s writing, so hunted down two of his other works, one fiction, one non. Herewith, some thoughts!
If on a winter’s night a traveler (1979, transl. William Weaver): This seems to be one of the few books in the world whose title is always written like it’s a sentence, not a title, uncapitalised. It has a famed premise, but in case you don’t know: the opening pages address you, the reader, and describe the experience you’re about to have reading the book, suggesting that you put your feet up, get comfortable, yell at whoever’s in the next room to turn the TV down (or maybe just shut the door). “Do you need to go to the bathroom?” the narrator inquires, before the disclamatory, “All right. You know best.” The next chapter describes the first chapter of the book as “you” read it, but it moves from describing (“The novel begins in a train station”) to inserting you into the action. Then it stops. The reader character attempts to locate the rest of the book, but keeps finding only other beginnings to other novels. In the interstices of his search for the original of the book he started reading (it’s definitely a he), he meets an Other Reader, Ludmilla, with whom he falls in love. There are ten book beginnings, interspersed with chapters following the Reader on his quest through bookshops, academia, publishing, and automated literature-producing scams. Some of the books the Reader finds are invariably more interesting than others. I lost focus a bit in most of the middle ones, which seem to be pastiching less engaging genres, and in the more overtly philosophical musings on the Death of the Author, which are informed by Calvino’s friendships with Barthes and Foucault and the reader-reception theory guys. But the novel really is a funny, playful, enchanting love letter to reading, to readers, to books, and fully lives up to its billing as a postmodernist masterpiece without being (too) obnoxious. A great chaser to Cosmicomics!
The Road to San Giovanni (2009, transl. Tim Parks): A collection of five essays which range from Calvino’s childhood memories of the cinema to a hilariously serious disquisition on the significance of taking out the bins. The collection opens with a beautiful essay evoking his walking, with his father, to San Giovanni, where they owned a farm which was worked by employees and which yielded fresh produce that they carried back with them in panniers for the week’s cooking in their home nearer town. Calvino uses it as a jumping-off point for exploring his relationship with his father, but also for thinking about changes in land use and society in post-war Italy, about how adolescents (and humans) never really know what they’ve got til it’s gone, as Joni Mitchell would say. This is one of my favourites (the other is the one about the bins, “La Poubelle Agréée”, which takes in the social contract, French bureaucracy, gender relations, and the psychoanalytic functions of waste removal). Another, much shorter, essay—maybe the most affecting—revisits a memory of a botched attack on a village in which Calvino participated as an anti-fascist fighter in the Italian Resistance. It has a very different tone, much less playful, quietly horrified. Finally, there is “From the Opaque”, a highly poetic contemplation of the shape of the world. It’s too etiolated and abstruse to work very well for me, but may well be a stylistic holy grail for a different kind of reader. Fantastically varied, without exception beautifully written—this served as a lovely taster introduction to Calvino’s nonfiction.
I was prompted, in fact, by the success of both of these to pick up another collection of his essays, entitled Collection of Sand, from an Oxfam bookshop over the weekend—so there will probably be another installation of Calvino Thoughts coming soon-ish from me!
Have you read either of these? Do you have a favourite Calvino?
Super-Infinite: the Transformations of John Donne, Katherine Rundell (2022)
John Donne has been in my top five—no, top two—poets of all time since I was about fourteen. I can’t remember where I first encountered his work, but I became steadily more fascinated by it throughout high school: the close-reading techniques with which American pedagogy of the mid-2000s chose to teach poetry to teenagers lent themselves to the knotty syntax and sometimes shocking metaphors of his love poems. Later in high school, I procured a copy of his prose work Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions, written when he believed himself near death. That copy also included some excerpts from his sermons, including the famous “No man is an island” section. When a friend of mine killed himself the summer before my junior year (lower sixth, in English parlance, or year twelve; I was sixteen), Donne’s refusal to look away from the realities of death and desire were something of a life raft. One English class required us to undertake a kind of self-expressive art project; I made an “altered book” full of quotations, postcards, photos cut out from magazines, abstract designs. The endpapers are painted a visceral pinkish-red, and on the very first page I wrote, in block-capital black letters, “I AM A LITTLE WORLD MADE CUNNINGLY/OF ELEMENTS, AND AN ANGELIKE SPRITE”—the first two lines of Donne’s Holy Sonnet V. (I didn’t know then that most modern editions alter some of his spellings: “angelike” is usually rendered “angelic”.) He is setting out his stall with those words, and so am I: or, as Katherine Rundell puts it in her biography of him, he believed that if you “tap a human… they ring with the sound of infinity.”
Rundell is also an author with whom I’ve had very good experiences in the past—her children’s novels, including The Wolf Wilder and Rooftoppers, are phenomenally successful because they are a rare example of contemporary writing for children that does not treat them like idiots. Courage, adventure, and a thread of real loss—the truth of reality—runs through them all. They are fantasies that take place in our world, more or less, where the magic is to be found in humans, in friendship. She’s also a fellow at All Souls College, Oxford, specialising academically in Renaissance literature. That certainty of human magic is a trait she shares with Donne, a poet she both adores and sees clearly in all his fallibility (unlike his earliest biographer, his friend Izaak Walton, whose hagiographical approach comes in for a bit of heavy weather from Rundell). They are a match made in heaven, at least from my perspective.
What Super-Infinite does so very well—and in this it is a lot like another literary biography that has transcended the strictures of its genre recently, Alex Christofi’s Dostoevsky in Love—is walk a thrilling line between assuming too much familiarity and over-explaining. If you are fairly familiar with Donne’s work, you will find yourself excited to read the poetry again, perhaps to explore the prose you don’t know as well. (I found myself trying, with increasing urgency, to find a complete collection of his sermons; they are commercially available only as extracts in Oxford World’s Classics and Penguin volumes. I’ve ordered the former.) If you have never read Donne before, Rundell’s unabashed partisanship and impassioned advocacy will make you unquenchably curious to see what it’s all about. She chooses her quotations intelligently, showing off the range of his talents: the sexiness, the wit, the harshness, the sheer weirdness. His reputation is for literary difficulty, but in none of the extracts Rundell highlights is he impossible to understand—brilliant, yes; obfuscatory, no.
As the subtitle might suggest, Super-Infinite organises itself by tracking Donne’s transformations throughout his life, from “The Prodigious Child” through “The (Unsuccessful) Adventurer”, “The Anticlimactically Married Man”, to “The Dean”. (He became Dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral.) Transformation—the mutability of the body, the variability of the soul—is key to his writing, too. Rundell captures the extremes of Donne’s thought, his hope and despair, his faith and his irreverence, his love and his scorn, mapping him through every change. It’s a fantastically appropriate way to write about a man who could describe his lover as a murderous vapour, who saw the nature of his desire reflected not in flowers or birds but a mathematical instrument, who asked God to “break, blow, burn, and make me new“. What a well-deserved winner of last year’s Baillie Gifford Prize!
The Face of Another, Kobo Abe, transl. E. Dale Saunders (1964)
This challenge, hosted by Dolce Bellezza, runs through the end of February, but I really wanted to read my entry by the end of January, and I’ve managed to slide just under the wire here with The Face of Another! It’s a very odd book, which I was at least expecting—Abe has been described as a precursor to Haruki Murakami in his surreal fictions—but even so, getting through it was a bit of an effort, and has left me wondering whether Abe is really an author for me.
I don’t believe it’s possible to “spoil the plot” of a book that has been publicly available for nearly sixty years, but be advised that this review makes details of the plot explicit, as the Penguin Classic introductions sometimes say. The basic plot is simple: an industrial chemist has a laboratory accident which leaves his face covered with what he calls “scar webs”, raised keloid burns that have completely disfigured him. His wife’s sexual rejection leads him to build a lifelike mask for himself, which he wears over his ruined face and which begins to develop what seems like a personality of its own. Allegedly led on by the mask, he plots to seduce his own wife, and succeeds in carrying on an anonymous affair with her for several months. The book we are reading is comprised of his three notebooks (black, white, and grey), in which he narrates his proceedings, complete with interjections and marginalia, plus the letter he writes to his wife as a final “reveal” of his true identity, and the letter his wife writes back.
There are moments in which The Face of Another is extremely successful: when our unnamed narrator discusses how his “roadway” or “path” to other people—his ability to make meaningful human connections—has been damaged by the damage done to his face, for example, it is poignant and affecting. The late appearance of a woman, a character in a film the narrator watches, who is a hibakusha—a burned survivor of the atomic bombs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki—speaks to the complexity and the cruelty of human aesthetic ideals, and her retention of a quiet dignity in the face of street harassment suggests a way of living with disability that our narrator can’t grasp. (I suppose, in some ways, you could argue the toss on whether this is a novel about disability or not. I very much read it that way. Whether the narrator, or indeed Abe himself, intends it or not, The Face of Another seems to me a clear dramatisation of the social model of disability. The disfigured face is not the problem, per se; the public reaction to it, and the profound social disadvantage at which it places the narrator, is.)
At other times, the novel seems to trip itself up. It contains a lot of pondering, all in the first-person narrating voice, on questions of identity, loneliness, selfhood. These aren’t without value, but they are repetitive and difficult to wade through; that could be down to the translation, but it seems, taking the book as a whole, as though Abe really does want to give us a claustrophobic insight into the narrator’s thought processes, circular and self-lacerating as they are. It struck me how little the protagonist talks to anyone else: he doesn’t seem to have friends, he doesn’t take his wife into his confidence and ask her honestly for help, he has no family. It makes for sad and painful reading, and the repetitiveness takes its toll. The descriptions of the process by which he makes the mask are also extensive, and one’s interest does flag a little as the details roll by.
The ending is fascinatingly ambiguous: the narrator’s wife, having had this months-long affair, discovers the notebooks in their usual meeting place and reads them through. He has left them there for her on purpose, wanting to reveal himself and shame her for her “infidelity”. Instead, she replies to him in a note that clarifies that she’s known his true identity all along. Humiliated and defeated, he stalks her through the streets of their city, and in the final image of the book, he is hiding behind a wall with a pistol, listening to footsteps coming closer. They might be hers—he thinks they are—although the reader knows they might not be. It is no doubt unsophisticated of me to wish they had simply discussed things together in person.
So: an odd book. My first introduction to Abe, and a mixed bag. It was made into a film by Hiroshi Teshigahara and apparently is more successful in that medium, which makes perfect sense to me; it relies so heavily on creating a psychological atmosphere, and I can see film doing that more efficiently than fiction. If anyone out there has read more of Kobo Abe’s novels, do tell me: are they all like this? Is there a particular title I might move on to from here?
Herewith, brief considerations of my two most recent reads, both of which were nonfiction.
The Right to Sex, Amia Srinivasan (2021)
I bought this during a happy ninety minute spree in Blackwell’s after a major 18th-century studies conference at St Hugh’s College, which was a glorious three days of scholarship and friend-making, but which was also highly social and draining. I skipped the final plenary roundtable (I’m sorry!) in favour of some solitary book shopping to restore my introvert energy tank. The Right to Sex is (in short) a brilliant collection of essays by an All Souls fellow, tackling phenomena like Internet pornography, the incel movement, legalising sex work, and the shortcomings of a model of good sex that operates solely on the binary basis of consent = good, non-consent = bad. What Srinivasan’s thinking reminds me of the most is Jia Tolentino’s, in the latter’s collection on modern technology, Trick Mirror—there is that same commitment to thinking through absolutely every angle, following every thread to its conclusion, and resisting not only easy answers, but often any answers at all. Which isn’t to say that Srinivasan has no point of view: she very much does, but she forces us to ask what it actually means to claim (for instance) that our feminism is “intersectional” or “sex-positive”. The Right to Sex has acted as a whetstone, sharpening up my thinking, and I’m going to be recommending it a lot.
A Horse at Night: On Writing, Amina Cain (2022)
This was a passed-on volume from a writer friend and former colleague. I’d read Cain’s novel Indelicacy and felt vaguely positive indifference for it; it was obviously stylish but didn’t make me feel much of anything, and wasn’t therefore really my cup of tea. A Horse at Night, which is a collection of short musings (some no more than a page long) on various books, paintings and films in relation to Cain’s own authorial projects, cemented my notion that she and I simply value different things in fiction, and in art generally. She comes back to the power of landscape a lot, but its power for her seems to be of the impressionistic, not the concrete, variety. Many of the authors she cites are ones whose work has provoked in me a similar vaguely positive indifference—Rachel Cusk, Deborah Levy. I prefer other things: the satisfactions of plot, which may be a vulgar pleasure but is not worth denying; depth of character; colour, texture, detail and density in language. It’s not a value judgement on Cain’s taste, or on mine, but it means that what she gets out of art is unlikely to be what I get out of it, and so her thinking is focused away from what interests me.
Have you read either of these? If so (and even if not!), do you have thoughts?
I very, very rarely read crime, of any persuasion; Golden Age or noir, Old World or New, it just tends not to draw me. Or so I thought. For some reason, this year, between about the 22nd and the 31st of December, crime was nearly all I wanted to read. (Perhaps this is because we discovered all twelve series of David Suchet’s Poirot are available on ITV’s new streaming service. Who can say?) Anyway, here’s what I made of it all.
The Mysterious Affair at Styles, by Agatha Christie (1916; pub. 1920): I hate to say this given it’s the novel that introduces the famous Hercule Poirot, but… largely forgettable. It’s a poisoning murder, set in a country house, with clues that include a false beard and a lethal dose of strychine. Poirot is brilliant from the start, but the other characters are quite forgettable (with the possible exception of Hastings, our narrator, whose voice is just daft and pompous enough to reveal his own self-delusions, and to showcase how much potential Christie had even at this early stage of her career).
Sparkling Cyanide, by Agatha Christie (1945): Much, much better all around. Another poisoning mystery—a young and beautiful woman, recently married, appears to commit suicide by drinking a cyanide-laced glass of champagne at a public party for her birthday; one year later, her husband, convinced that her death was murder, gets all the possible suspects together in the same venue, and promptly dies in the same way. Because the novel starts with a section in which each chapter is focalised through a different suspect, and because the novel starts well after the first death, it’s a more structurally exciting and sophisticated fiction, and the characterisation is much improved. It’s odd that the killer’s identity is, in many ways, very similar to the solution in Styles; the books were published twenty-five years apart. But that said, the solution here is more satisfying than in Styles, precisely because of that improved insight into character. A really good entry in the Christie canon.
The Norfolk Mystery, by Ian Sansom (2013): Sadly disappointing. The premise was very promising: shocked into near-nihilism by his experiences in the Spanish Civil War, ex-soldier Stephen Sefton takes a job as amanuensis to Professor Swanton Morley, a prolific autodidact who intends to write a guide to every county in England in under a decade. On their first jaunt, in Norfolk, the body of a local vicar is discovered hanging in his vestry, but Morley is convinced all is not as it appears… and he’s right. Or, well, actually, he’s wrong. Frustratingly [mild spoilers, I guess?], what originally appeared to be the case is in fact the case. It’s not quite a murder. We do figure out what happened, eventually, but the route of deduction is circuitous and greatly obstructed by Morley’s characterisation; Sansom was obviously aiming for a sort of lower-middle-class Sherlock Holmes figure, someone who knows a lot and spouts off about it endlessly, but most of Morley’s observations aren’t to the point the way that Sherlock’s are. Sefton, meanwhile, remains largely a cipher. It’s difficult to imagine what Sansom’s purpose in writing the book might have been. I won’t carry on with the series.
The Outsider, by Stephen King (2018): Half horror, half crime, this one, which is a subgenre I’m finding myself attracted to. Beloved Little League baseball coach Terry Maitland is accused of an appalling crime against a child. Forensic evidence and eyewitness testimony both put him at the scene; it was definitely him. But it can’t have been… because he was also captured on tape at a conference hundreds of miles away at the same time, on the same day. From this premise, King spins a story of a supernatural, superhuman predator out of legend, and brings together a band of misfits with skin in the game to catch the creature. Holly Gibney appears again in this book; I gather she featured in the Bill Hodges books (Mr. Mercedes, Finders Keepers, and End of Watch), which, on the basis of The Outsider, I would happily read. Contemporary King has often misfired for me (couldn’t finish The Institute, for example), but this feels like some of his quintessential work.
The Lost Gallows, by John Dickson Carr(1931): My very first British Library Crime Classic, and an excellent choice! This one has a crackerjack premise: a wealthy man is apparently abducted, his car somehow driven around London by his unfortunate chauffeur’s corpse, and a message received that he has been “hanged on the gallows in Ruination Street”… which doesn’t exist. The note is signed “Jack Ketch”—London’s historic name for an executioner. I absolutely loved this: the atmosphere of gloom, fog, and miserable gentlemen’s clubs is second to none, while the intrigue of a street that doesn’t exist and the creepiness of the little model gallows that keeps appearing on tables create proper shivers. As the foregoing may have suggested, I really like mysteries whose solution seems like it must be supernatural (but isn’t); the sense of impossibility tickles my brain. Inspector Henri Bencolin, the detective protagonist in this story, is a remarkably dark character, repeatedly described as “cruel” and “malicious” by the narrator (who’s supposedly his friend!) It gives the story a more modern feel, and it also makes Bencolin more of a person, instead of a detective “type”. Highly recommended, and I’ll be reading more of Carr’s work very soon.
Green for Danger, by Christianna Brand (1944): A tremendously plotted crime novel, my second BLCC (there’s a 3 for 2 deal and I was in the British Library bookshop a few days ago… I couldn’t resist), set during the Blitz in a Kentish military hospital. In the opening chapter, a local postman delivers seven letters to the hospital from doctors and nurses accepting posts there. One year later, that postman dies on the operating table, and one of those seven doctors and nurses is the killer. Why anyone would want to kill him, and how they could possibly have done it in the operating theatre with multiple other people present, is the core of a totally fiendish puzzle—but what I loved so much about Green for Danger was the character work. The complex social ecosystem of V.A.D.s and ward sisters is described perfectly, the bravery and boredom that go hand in hand when bombing is a regular threat, the appeal of illicit sex in a newly topsy-turvy world characterized by stress and danger. Fantastically misleading at times, and with a false-bottom reveal I genuinely didn’t see coming (though, to be fair, I rarely do). Top drawer.
The Mysterious Mr Badman, by W.F. Harvey (1934): Delightfully subtitled “a Yorkshire bibliomystery”, this is another great premise: the splendidly named Athelstan Digby, a humble blanket manufacturer, is on holiday visiting his nephew on the North York Moors. One day he agrees to mind his landlord’s shop, which happens to sell secondhand books, and receives three separate requests for John Bunyan’s The Life and Death of Mr. Badman—not in stock until the very end of the day, when a young lad sells him a parcel of secondhand books containing that very title. Soon after, one of the customers who’d inquired for the title is found shot dead on the moor, and Athelstan—plus his doctor nephew, Jim Pickering, and the delightful Diana Conyers, who Jim seems to have met during the first world war when she was a V.A.D.—determines to investigate. This is mostly a novel about politically motivated blackmail, and less a novel about books as murder-worthy objects in their own right, but the character interactions are marvelous. I would love to read more fiction featuring Athelstan Digby; sadly I don’t think Harvey wrote any more novels including him.
From this I have concluded that I held out on the BLCCs for far too long. I thought I wasn’t keen on Golden Age crime—turns out, what I’m mostly not keen on is subpar contemporary parodies of Golden Age crime. The real stuff is proving fantastic!
This year I’m committing to very little in the way of reading plans, hoping to keep enjoying reading at whim. I want to encourage myself to jump into series and backlists that I like, and to keep using the libraries as much as possible. There are a number of directions I’d like to explore: more Russians (Bely, Turgenev, another Dostoevsky, short stories); Dolce Bellezza’s Japanese Literature challenge; improving my knowledge of classic writers from Continental Europe; choosing a category from the Guardian 1000 list to shape each month’s reading. But truly, I don’t want to overextend, or get too caught up in planning and not enough in the reading. There are two (maybe three) projects I’d really like to prioritize:
Kaggsy and Simon’s #1940Club in April. I’ve never done one of these and they’re so very famous in the litblogosphere! 1940 looks like a good year in publishing: Richard Wright’s Native Son, Carson McCullers’s The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, Norman Collins’s London Belongs to Me, John Dickson Carr’s The Man Who Couldn’t Shudder… Some of these would also count for my other project(s), too.
The Great Reread of 2023. Partly inspired by Laura’s 20 Rereads of Summer, I’d like to see what I think now of some titles that I remember making a huge impression on me a few years ago. In the half-decade after graduating from university, in particular (approx. 2014-2019), there were a lot of books that I recall feeling strongly positive about, but I haven’t reread most of them since. Time to see if all the fuss was worth it! I’m thinking a minimum of one reread a month.
A new personal reading-list project, probably themed around American Classics. Some of this could be part of the Great Reread, but there’s plenty that I haven’t read yet. Most of Edith Wharton and Henry James, for example; Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man; any James Fenimore Cooper; Theodore Dreiser’s Sister Carrie; Harriet Jacobs’s Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. The list goes on!
There’s also some travel coming up, including a long flight to San Francisco in February (and a flight back, of course), and a week of walking Hadrian’s Wall in May. I’ll need to determine some foolproof airplane reading—they’ll be the longest flights of my life so far!—and something for May that’s portable enough to go in a rucksack, but not so short I finish it on the first evening… I can’t wait to start planning.
Do you have any bookish resolutions or reading plans for 2023?