W.G. Sebald. Austerlitz. The Emigrants

photo: Émile-Alexandre Taskin and Adèle Isaac as Dr. Miracle and Antonia in the premiere of The Tales of Hoffmann, 1881 (Bibliothèque nationale de France, département Musique)

Austerlitz is a novel that subversively and gracefully explores the art and artifice of the memoir form: an unnamed narrator reports on the memoirs of a man named Austerlitz, who has only recently begun to research and discover his own past, which has been obscured from him for decades by traumatic amnesia, and of which virtually no traces of supporting data remain after the Holocaust. How does Austerlitz discover that past? By an obsessive study of architecture, which leads him away from the book he’s supposed to be writing, and on a quest to discover why certain kinds of railway stations, village layouts, and styles of fortification bother him so much. Memory exists in buildings; memory is made, brick by brick, image by image, word by word; memory is built at several removes from “experience” and only in fragments. It’s a view of fiction/memoir that allows fiction writers to get past the more defensive and self-limiting aspects of the fiction/memoir divide, yet challenges the assumption that fiction is only imagination, while memoir is a depository of unvarnished, authentic truth.
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Gao Xingjian. Soul Mountain

I’d like to start with a view that dissents with those of some other reviewers, who (in praise, often) claim that this book works outside the rules of fiction, or is unlike all other books, or isn’t even a novel. Of course it is a novel, and a hyperliterary one at that–and it operates within structures of fictional form that are common (even commonplace) in the twentieth century, not to mention in earlier works that share some of its more astonishing features (such as Don Quixote). And Gao got a degree in French literature and appears to have been well acquainted with modernism. So there’s that, to start.
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Miguel de Cervantes. Don Quixote.

Max Slevogt, Don Quichote und Sancho Pansa, 1917

I don’t know if it was because I was tired (I only read it in bed before going to sleep at night), but after 6 months I’d gotten through only the first 100-odd pages. But then it (or I) started flying. The first thing that got me was the cat joke (im in yr cavalcade saturizing yr litrary deloojuns), then the rapidly escalating violence, and by the time Sancho got tossed in a blanket, I was laughing out loud every few pages.
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Kazuo Ishiguro. The Unconsoled.

Photo: Outside the Labyrinth, Patrice Gracia 2015

Look at that picture. It’s the maze outside the freakin Budapest National Theatre!

Since Ishiguro is so concerned with how personal accountability intersects with personal and public delusionality, it only makes sense that he should have written a book in which a man approaches a public concert and keynote–and his family life–with the reckless, responsibility-free logic of dreams (stand up to give a speech and find yourself naked; turn into a pig; go backwards every time you step forwards, and why the hell not? And while you’re at it, neglect your child! Break every promise you make! Ignore a man’s getting his leg sawed off in front of you! LIFE IS BUT A DREAM!). Or, perhaps, a book in which a public figure should look about him and see all people and events only as elements of his own, all-important emotional life, while the public, simultaneously, view him only as a means toward forwarding their own agendas: public life is an interface at which people cease to recognize other people as people; there is only the I! Or, perhaps, a book that satirizes the idea that dreams have any meaning at all, by presenting the poverty of choice and experience that dreams represent. Or perhaps, a book that proves that ALL meaning can be found in dreams and the subconscious, giving us the dream-life of a character and practically begging us to deduce a coherent biography from the symbols!
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Sigrid Nunez. For Rouenna.

Photo: Saigon, South Vietnam….Lieutenant Frances Crumpton and Miss Nangnoi Tongkim, a Thai nurse, talk with an American soldier wounded in the Vietnam war. Naval Photographic Center, 1966

Devoured this book over two days’ breaks from jury duty. The most important thing I got from this book was Nunez’s thinking about personal and community responsibility to tell stories that are not “her” or “our” (or “my”) own, and the necessity of crossing identity lines (while still recognizing how they shape and bind our thinking) to tell those stories. Powerful stuff.

Read: October 2010

Chang-rae Lee. Native Speaker.

I liked this book much better on my second reading, twelve years later. The writing is uneven at times (especially in dialogue–which is so funny, given the themes, that at times it’s hard to tell if it’s actually a deliberate technique) (and at the beginning too–but lots of writers can’t write a good beginning)–but it’s a first novel, so. Most people, I think, read it as a personal-experience immigrant story, or the story of an unraveling marriage, and of course it is; it’s even a good immigrant story (and as an immigrant myself, I found it harrowing, in a good way). But I think the more interesting reading is to read it as a self-critiquing noir, because it’s a GREAT noir. To use the noirish narrative of the spy who’s alienated from his own identity, creating a new one to try to win somebody over–and matching that with the immigrant narrative, to ask in what ways immigrants are forced to become spies and impostors within the infiltrated culture as well as in their personal lives…. That’s great classic noir material, and the logical consequences of these investigations–which is to say, the surprises–keep piling on till very nearly the end of the book.

Read: November 2011

Nancy Mitford. The Pursuit of Love & Love in a Cold Climate: Two Novels

It’s hard to go into these novels already knowing rather a lot about the Mitfords, and especially as a worshiper of all things Jessica. Nancy Mitford mined her family and friends for characters and plots–the novels contain quite a bit of autobiographical fictioneering. But, while there are a number of felicitous, funny moments (the child hunt; anything said by Jassy–the Jessica stand-in–or Victoria; Lady Montdore going once in the morning and not needing to be let out all day like a dog; Uncle Matthew shaking Cedric like a rat), one can’t help feeling (um, knowing) that there’s a more interesting story not being told, and wonder why Nancy chose to relate or to suppress what she did.
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Juliet Barker. The Brontës

The Brontë Sisters, by Patrick Branwell Brontë, National Gallery

Barker wrote her book with the express purpose of refuting the Brontë mythos (isolated savage upbringing on the moors), revealing the family as they really really were, and salvaging the reputations of Patrick (Brontë père) and Branwell (Brontë frère). Because this is my first foray into Brontë biography, I cannot tell you what has happened since in Brontë scholarship, nor acquaint you, personally, with what went before and wrought up Barker to such a fever pitch of repudiation.

What I can say is that it is a big fat book, very entertaining, and, I should think, meticulously researched. Some readers may be put off by the chapters about Patrick, long ere the appearance of his children (on the literary scene, or at all), but I was charmed by his decades-long efforts to clean up the Haworth water supply (though I was surprised that Barker didn’t make the connection between the waterworks and Haworth curate/possible love interest William Weightman’s agonizing death from cholera), to get his poetry published, and to survive small town political skulduggery. Readers who, like me, are unacquainted with the biographical details except those derived from the very Brontë mythos that Barker deplores, will be surprised to see that Haworth in the first half of the nineteenth century was a not-unprosperous industrial town and transit hub with thousands of inhabitants, and not the lonely hamlet that it became after industry left, and in which visitors today can feel claustrophobic. We will also be surprised to see, from the evidence of hundreds of letters, journal entries, and interviews, that Patrick Brontë was not a crazed tyrannical hermit who starved his daughters; that Charlotte, Emily, and Anne regularly attended concerts and lectures, subscribed to the lending library, read the papers voraciously, and did a lot of entertaining (Emily baked and managed the household; Charlotte couldn’t even order a chop); and that Arthur Nicholls, Charlotte’s unfortunate husband, actually did enjoy and encourage her writing, rather than repressing it. We also get ample evidence of where the “ë” came from. Good stuff.
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A.G. Mojtabai. Blessed Assurance: At Home With the Bomb in Amarillo, TX

Photo: B-61 gravity bomb being disassembled in Pantex plant

A wonderful, fast-moving, nonfiction book, from an underappreciated writer, about “the intersection of nuclear reality and religious vision,” written in the 1980s. If you’re interested in fundamentalist Christian discourses and/or political, economic, and cultural accommodation to the war machine, this is a must-read.
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Henry Green. Living. Loving. Party Going

The back yard of The Darby and Joan Hotel, High Street, Crowle, Lincolnshire, England

What unobtrusively wonderful novels! The more I think about them, the more interesting and good I consider them to be; they reward a slow chewing-over. They’re also resistant to lazy reading; they don’t invite the reader in–they don’t encourage interpretation or identification or any of the reader’s typical crutches. But on the other hand, the plain prose style, heavy on everyday dialogue, deliberately abstains from warning the reader that she’ll be encountering an intricately constructed work of art.
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