This year I must be doing a good job choosing books, or just getting lucky, or have lowered expectations, because even though I’ve read much fewer books than last year, I’ve read more outstanding ones. Since if this luck continues it would make for too long a post come the end of the year, here is a semi-annual version of this previous post.
The Periodic Table (Primo Levi, 1975) I heard of this book as being about science, which is not a very appropriate description at all. It’s mostly an autobiography, with a couple short stories thrown in. The scientific connection comes about because each essay or story is titled after – and usually involves – a given chemical element. Despite what whoever I heard of this book made it sound like, it’s not that you learn anything about the title element in any essay. Instead, it works as an overarching idea, helping give a reference point and a constraint to stories about Levi’s boyhood, work, imprisonment in a concentration camp, and even a fantasy about a traveling miner-intuitive. That kind of loosely constrained writing is what I think it’s the most fun writing, and it’s also something I greatly enjoy reading. And, since Levi’s life is intimately connected with his career as a chemist, it is highly apt for an autobiography. It made me remember the time I was excited about and wanted to study chemistry very nostalgically. Despite this book not being in any way scientific, I think nothing could be better than it to give to aspiring chemists, too: it helps convey the everyday excitement and mystery that chemistry can hold. But because Levi is a writer who feels people deeply and who others somehow instinctively trust as a listener, it’s also a lot more universal than just that.
Dune (Frank Herbert, 1965) A huge achievement in world building – and in tension building. The world building is impressive because it avoids most of the standard trappings of sci-fi or fantasy to offer something novel and fascinating. The tension building is even more so. Dune unfolds almost like a Greek tragedy. Our hero Paul Atreides seems destined to become a prophet, and seems destined to come to ruin, and seems destined to lead the world into a huge cataclysm. This fate is foreshadowed again and again. And the whole book, even as political intrigue swirls and even as we are initiated into Herbert’s world, has this background of everyone including Paul himself fighting, savagely, desperately, to gain some measure of control over the wheels of fate. This tension builds and builds and builds and never releases. The end of the book is just as tense, just as filled with foreboding, as any other part. This is a perfect set up for the sequel. I heard that the Dune saga gets worse and worse from here. But, really, with a buildup so immense, the truth is that it can’t help but disappoint, no matter what happens. Maybe the moment of maximum tension is where we are best to leave off.
Family / Borghesia (Natalia Ginzburg, 1977) Family and Borghesia are two novellas that are made to be read as one book, a book I randomly picked out at the university library. I had never heard of the author – I assumed she was somehow connected to Russia, which she isn’t at all – she is Italian, and the novellas take place mostly in Rome. This is why university libraries are so great, ny the way. You can pick out a random book knowing nothing about it with much more confidence than you can at a store or at a public library, which are bound to be filled with mostly crappy books. But back to Family and Borghesia: I thought they were incredibly powerful. They begin as writing prompts, as completely bare statements of abstract fact: the first sentence of “Family” is “A man and a woman went to see a film one sunny Sunday afternoon”; for “Borghesia” it is “a woman who had never kept any animals was given a cat”. They slowly grow out from there in random spurts with everyday situations, people who come into the story for a minute, only to disappear, or to reappear later, ordinary thoughts and worries and jealousies and this feeling of something so very important lacking. It’s like life. I am now going to go looking for other things she’s written, but for now let me recommend these two.
The Translator (John Crowley, 2002) I was interested in seeing what the author of maybe the best fantasy book ever written (“Little, Big”) would do without any fantasy whatsoever. It’s in fact notable how completely free of the fantastic element this book is: I kept waiting for the littlest magical realist touch, just the hint of something truly inexplicable. Which is not to say that the book lacks in mystery. Crowley is a master of ambiguity and underexplanation as tools of mystery, so even though everything that happens is in some sense “normal,” it is still mysterious. What does happen? A young college freshman meets a poet exiled from the Soviet Union. And then later, she remembers this time of her life, coinciding with the Cuban Missile Crisis, and also what came before. Because the girl, Kit, grows up to be a poet and a translator, and because the exiled, somewhat Brodsky-like dissident Falin teaches her a course on poetry, and gets her to translate his poems, the beauty and power of language is ever present. They talk profoundly about language and translation, and they talk in poetic language, and they are surrounded by stunning images. But despite this enchanting web, it’s the two central characters, Kit and Falin, that are really the highlights of the book, much more so than, say, in “Little, Big”.
The 14 Carat Roadster (Jeno Rejto, 1940) A madcap caper of a book, few things can compete for pure enjoyment. A farce, a romance, a dashing adventure, a parody of the military in the face of the French Foreign Legion, and a mocking love letter for the Aristocratic Europe of Biarritzes and Monacos. Imagine if the Good Soldier Svejk, without being any less the Good Soldier Svejk, was also Ostap Bender and a romantic hero, and you start to see what this book is like. It starts like this:
Ivan Gorchev, sailor on the freight ship Rangoon, was not yet twenty-one when he won the Nobel Prize in physics. To win a scientific award at such a romantically young age is unprecedented, though some people might consider the means by which it was achieved a flaw. For Ivan Gorchev won the Nobel Prize in physics in a card game, called macao, from a Professor Bertinus, on whom the honour had been bestowed in Stockholm by the King of Sweden a few days earlier. But those who are always finding fault don’t like to face facts, and the fact of the matter is that Ivan Gorchev did win the Nobel Prize at the age of twenty-one.
Can you beat that? You can’t, and if you think you can, you’re wrong. And then you realize this romp, where any fool who takes anything seriously is committing the most grievous blunder and is cause for endless hilarity, was being written by a man who knew he wouldn’t be able to publish it under his own name, being a Jew. A man who was going to die in a forced labour camp less than three years later. I don’t know what that means about life.
A Good Man is Hard to Find (Flannery O’Connor, 1955) My roommate was leaving “The Love of a Good Woman” on the coffee table, so I thought in response, I’d start leaving “A Good Man is Hard to Find” there, too. And then I got to reading it and it was nothing like I expected. This book is absolutely devastating in its cutting, bitter irony. It shows us the South, and it shows us people, real people, and it does so without any compassion whatsoever. Not a drop of it. It is funny, yes, but we are not placed at a safe remove where we can get by with condescension. And so, even more than it is funny, it is frightening. The title is supposed to be ironic, but O’Connor means it, too. Good people are hard to find because there is not a single good person in this world.
The Love of a Good Woman (Alice Munro, 1998) I dunno what Alice Munro does with whatever she writes that isn’t brilliant. I’ve read short stories that I liked more than Munro, but I’ve not yet read a Munro short story that wasn’t brilliant. I don’t think I can say that about anyone else. The thematics of this collection are a little bit more varied than what I’d read before (murder, abortion clinics, a disappearance in South East Asia, Paris) as are the narrative devices. But fundamentally, it’s the same thing: Munro understands the inner live of people, whether they be children, lovers, old people. And she writes about how those inner lives connect in odd, oblique ways with big momentous events and with small personal interactions. That’s it. There’s no other secret to it. You think that it’d be too mundane, but quietly she has storied-up all of life.
Lolita (Vladimir Nabokov, 1955) I’d read it before and at the time it seemed strange to me how Nabokov had me sympathising with a pedophile rapist. Now I wonder why I ever thought so, because reading it again, Humbert Humbert is, and I think is clearly meant to be, an extremely repulsive character. But the mind games and the word games this book plays! Showing off an unparallelled mastery of the language is one thing, of course, but there’s also all this lyricism. And the cars and the bars and the barmen. I don’t need to introduce this book to you, obviously, though. It’s a masterpiece, and let’s leave it at that.
Slouching towards Bethlehem (Joan Didion, 1968) I started reading this book in the bookstore of the university where I briefly worked as a labourer. I would come for my coffee breaks, come for my lunch break, and since in general it wasn’t very important that you start or finish your breaks right on time, I ended up reading a lot of this book. I realized I was completely entranced, which is rare for a book of non-fiction for me. But what non-fiction! The opening essay, “Some Dreamers of the Golden Dream” has the most beautiful prose of any non-fiction that I can think of. It also helps that throughout the book, I thought of Joan Didion as a kindred spirit. I don’t know if it’s just the writing that’s so easy to identify with, or whether there’s anything more to it, but throughout, I had the feeling that Didion was expressing just what I would have wanted to, but been unable to, express in a given situation. Although she mentions sending out an article to The Nation, I don’t think I’ve read anything so deeply conservative in my life. As someone who is similarly left wing in his politics and incredibly conservative in his general life outlook, this book spoke to my prejudices like few others.
Shadow of the Sun (Ryszard Kapuscinsky, 1998) I’ve never read much about Africa. Neither has the target reader of Ryszard Kapuscinsky’s book. For something like 40 years, Kapuscinsky was the Polish press’ only representative in Africa, so the story of the entire continent falls on his shoulders. He appears everywhere, remarking on the world-momentous and the personal, seeming to barely escape with his life several times and always with a story for the papers. It’s very exciting. It’s also a valuable service, as everywhere he goes, he exposes and shames cruelty, and he rails against the colonial mindset and against gross generalizations about “Africa” as if it were one. And yet in his book, you see that the generalizations are still there. At some level, if you write a single 300-page book whose theme is Africa for the past forty years, it can’t be helped. But it’s worse than it has to be. And are any of his stories really true? It’s not altogether clear. If I were someone were someone deeply informed about Africa, this book would have annoyed me. But since I’m not, Shadow of the Sun is information, philosophy, adventure, testament, and not least a primer to get one to want to look deeper.
Invisible Cities (Italo Calvino, 1972) I heard before about re-reading the same book at different times and getting something different out of it, but I thought that was kind of just a turn of phrase. Even Lolita, above, where I had a different reaction to the book than previously, was just a matter of changed sympathies. Rereading Invisible Cities, I thought it was about something different than what I thought it was about when I first read it. Back then, I thought it was a medieval fantasy, and a tale about the tricks that memory plays. And even more so an exercise in Escher-like imagination in building dream cities that Calvino then gets Marco Polo to recount to Kublai Khan. I loved it. This time around, I thought it was something totally different: a comment on the modern world. The main themes of the book seemed to me to be how modern travel never leaves one satisfied, the wanderlust of the next destination impossible to separate from disappointment in the present, the eternal question of whether there is anything more out there. It’s about the swift globalisation of culture, and the formlessness and meaninglessness of modern giant agglomerations. Marco Polo, when the Khan chastises him for never describing Venice, protests: but what do you think I’ve been telling you about all this time? The first time around, I saw this as a profound comment on memory. Now, I see it can also be read more literally. Venice is symptomatic of the modern world where cities face a difficult choice: to be commodified as tourist checkboxes, or to abandon any distinguishing characteristic or form, or, somehow, both. Whether in its earlier guise or how I see it now, this book is the cream of the crop.