A year in friends' libraries
(a reading diary, a list)
It was a year of emailing: I spent most of it not home. My physical address was (is?) in flux, and so more and more of my relationships were conducted through gmail accounts of what I was reading while away. Life! As a result of these exchanges, I find myself with a better record of what I was up to – what books my nose was in – than I usually do.
Lists! I’m going to give you one.
This was also a year of reading my friend’s books, mostly because I was staying in their apartments. If a lot of things about this year were terrible, a wonderful exception was realizing that my life is full of people in whose libraries I feel at home.
Toward the end of the year I stayed for a time at a friend’s in Berlin, which is how I finally came to read the latest Franzen. (There is no more embarrassing place for an English speaker to read Franzen than on the Berlin U-Bahn, I think, mostly because there is no better way to attempt to pose as a local who keeps up with American trends??) But the book: the Vietnam War is on, the culture wars are hot, and I respect the project to historicize them through the framing device of the titular youth group, Crossroads.
I grew up in Indiana; I know these groups. Manipulating teenagers into confessing their darkest secrets in front of their peers, then presenting the resulting shame as a purifying spiritual experience, is all too recognizable. It’s also a useful narrative frame for getting people to talk: drug addictions, abortions, pregnancies, infidelities, sexual passions, dramatic irony, overdoses, medical emergencies…all is revealed! It’s a real soap opera! As all group therapy should be. I was hooked.
The thing that most interests me, however, is whether it’s a novel of ideas while also being a finely structured novel of character. All evidence suggests yes? The youth group dramatizes the central query: How do I know if I’m a good person? Insofar as Franzen has set out to write a history of political turmoil in the United States, is there any more American question? (Is there anything more American than confusing private religious and/or moral purity for public politics? Is anything more on trend in contemporary literary anglophone fiction than the preoccupation with personal goodness?) That Franzen is so deeply invested in his characters’ shame in the face of moral hypocrisy is the novel’s strength. (The narration rotates perspectives within a pastor’s populous family; everyone is self-aware enough to be self-loathing and yet unable to improve themselves.) You can sense that each of our leads, while never stupid, is kept a little bit less intelligent than the author. The close-third telling, meanwhile, cleaves so closely and devotedly to character consciousnesses that there’s hardly any room for the narrator to fill in the gap.
This isn’t exactly a problem, but it does set up a puzzle: How does a novel of ideas build in its angle or its argument (which is to say its vulnerability) when there’s no conscious vehicle for delivering the full intelligence of the author behind the book? Character (at least this cast of characters) crowds it out. I suspect this is related to why Crossroads is also a book you can skim at lightning speed in bed with a hot water bottle while keeping one eye on your friend’s heating bill, or in the emergency room at Charité while the patient in the cot behind you is having a panic attack; you aren’t going to miss a key critical, elucidating passage where everything falls into place.
I respect the right of the novelist to cloak her vulnerability in a book, but at the end of the day, it should be there. Déjà vu: Nabokov’s idea that novels have nerve endings.
Someone points out to me that Crossroads is the beginning of a trilogy – maybe the volumes are meant to compose one big novel and we simply haven’t gotten to the primary intelligence-delivery mechanism yet.
Also borrowed: Wolfgang Tillmans’ photo books and a history of Hans Prinzhorn’s collection of the art of the insane.
I read a number of books in German this year, which was a new development. Many were titles I got secondhand from translators who didn’t have time to read all the hopefuls they’d been given for free. I worked my way through the beginnings of a few popular novels and noticed some recurring themes: pompous Germans harass Eastern Europeans in the post-war era; protagonists question where Europe proper even begins. The animating concern over whether Europe starts in Finland, or in the Czech Republic, or else on some other E/W hinge (as one narrator put it) struck me as a sure (if unjustified) sign that many of these books won’t be translated into English, because it’s a question that doesn’t resonate with the American mind. Meanwhile, war rips through Ukraine.
An exception to the translation rule: Yoko Tawada’s Wo Europa anfängt (Where Europe Begins, trans. Susan Bernofsky). Few use fairytales better or more ruthlessly.
This was the first year I was able to read for pleasure in another language (I keep the dictionary open on my phone, very necessary), and favorites in essay collections include akzentfrei, also by Yoko Tawada, and Ich denk, ich denk zu viel by Nina Kunz.
I really loved another bestselling novel, but I’m also angling for the commission to review the English translation. Suffice to say it reminded me of the picaresque potential of a duffel bag loaded with 600,000 in dirty cash.
It’s true what they say: Solenoid is a rare and ugly beauty, very much my favorite type.
Summer: A friend is reading early Sigrid Nunez – a big phase of mine from a few years before, and which I evangelized to her – while I am staying in her apartment in Washington Heights, reading her copy of Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity.
Strange & mutually noted feeling that reading each other’s books is the same as seeing each other. Sort of.
The day Roe v. Wade is overturned, I am teaching, by chance, Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber. The week before, a talented student confessed she was hesitant to use the word “feminist“ to describe a peer‘s story because the word seemed “too political.“
Exchange with a friend:
What word did she want to use instead??
In the very early part of the year, I was extremely sick. Who wasn’t! The friend whose apartment I’m staying in for this stretch is a literature professor; she has a beautiful and storied desk that, legend has it, was once owned by one of Germany’s first female journalists. I am in no shape to sit at it at present. Instead I sleep all day and stay up all night reading Hans Fallada’s Alone in Berlin, Brontë’s Jane Eyre, Carter’s Nights at the Circus, and Fran Ross’s Oreo, concluding in a feverish haze that the aesthetic for our time is undoubtedly gothic Weimar anxiety with a child-genius twist.
Also Tristram Shandy, Bolaño’s 2666, Shakespeare + my friend’s margin notes. Rereadings of Castiglione and H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine for a workshop on narrative and persuasion I am supposed to teach to scientists. This is an apartment for the canon.
For about two weeks in the spring, still in Berlin, I read and re-read nothing but Ernst Jünger plus historians on Ernst Jünger. This is recipe for winding up in a very strange mood.
The volumes wait for me in a stack at the library, which I visit every day. (I’ve botched my residency status, so I can’t check them out.) The motivation is that I’m struggling to write the introduction to a new translation of On the Marble Cliffs, out from New York Review of Books Classics in January. The assignment is a challenge, also a privilege. You can read the intro online at The Paris Review here.
(My favorite of Jünger‘s books remains The Glass Bees, where certain of his struggles achieve, to my mind, an honest sense of resignation—related to above notes on vulnerabilities.)
Claire-Louise Bennett is one of my favorite writers writing today, her most recent novel Checkout 19 confirms, and which I finish alongside Percival Everett’s excellent The Trees. Two writers who seem forever to be doing exactly what they want
Of note: Guadalupe Nettel’s Still Born (Fitzcarraldo). Motherhood five ways, filtered through one of those placid narrators who speaks directly to you. Minor quibble: How does she never finish that thesis??? It’s there simply to mark time…
When my partner gets Covid, I remain miraculously negative and sleep on the couch for a few days, staying up with Ágota Kristóf’s The Notebook Trilogy. It reads like a thriller. Totally chilling, totally alarming that she wrote it in French, which she learned as an adult after fleeing her native Hungary. The child twins, the collective “we” of the first book who go about the war years doling out justice as they see fit, arose in part from a formal constraint: she knew she’d never write like a native speaker, having learned so late in life, so she had to find a way to make the language her own.
Reflections on my own very miserable attempts to pick up French.
On night trains: Maria Ganzia’s Optic Nerve and Portrait of an Unknown Lady; Agatha Christie; Tagore; Houellebecq and Ernaux.
Driven by private obsessions, back home I order and read a number of academic books on the art of the grotesque. Begin Rabelais’s Gargantua: A monk dressed as a knight gets his visor stuck in a tree while on horseback and is left dangling from the branches. Echoes found in the opening of Stendhal’s Charterhouse of Parma, leading to following note to self: how 2 steal horse out from under protagonist.
Fall: Very sick! Again, who isn’t? Like a true invalid, I stay in bed and reread all of Swann in Love. When I’m better, a series of trains to London to visit my nephews. I stop halfway in Paris and stay with friends. One is a French scholar, and we meet for Lebanese for lunch. Proust! We’d forgotten how shallow he is! It’s the only thesis topic on the man we ever want to read again.
I published a novel this year and after wrote in notebooks for a few months, until it became clear that a manuscript of short stories was due somewhat imminently. So I naturally reread Deborah Eisenberg’s Your Duck is My Duck.
Also Shirley Hazzard’s collected stories, serendipitously gifted to me. Very wonderful, and left me feeling Muriel Spark is almost claustrophobic by comparison – a highly disloyal thought.
In an email to the friend whose desk I’m currently borrowing: according to Hazzard, the English sky is a "low-hung, personal affair, thoroughly identified with the King James Version," whereas Italy is graced with a "high, pagan explosion of a sky."
How do you finish a short story manuscript? I write to another friend who has just moved and to whom I often send first drafts. How should he know? He’s knee-deep in boxes and a manuscript of his own. I’m not sure I’m much better informed—obviously balance counts, but it comes about differently than in a novel. It’s hard to say if I got it right. Guess I’ll find out.
Some notable short stories I read this year: Matt Shen Goodman in The Paris Review; Julie Hecht in Granta; Ben Lerner and Bryan Washington here and here in The New Yorker; Missouri Williams in the now defunct Astra, RIP.
Toward the very end of the year, someone comes over for tea and mentions she’s reading Rosa Luxemburg’s collected letters. As with most people I met this year, I admire her a little too much; I immediately start reading it, too.
Note: Worse things in life than being forced to rediscover the importance of letter writing. Rare sympathy with Alexander Pope, who according to my anthology “In the 1730s wrote to his correspondents asking them to return the letters he had sent them. After covering his tracks through a torturous series of transactions, he then rewrote and published them himself.”
(PS Wrote this w/ my nephew repeatedly testing whether my laptop has a touch screen (it doesn’t), sry for the typos)