Literature is news that stays news.
Like José Donoso, I’ve learned much about life by reading novels. I read nonfiction and poetry too, but my mainstay is fiction. In stories, I get lost to find myself in another’s words, deal with others’ dilemmas, and glimpse the long arc of history.
My self-imposed 800-word, four-minute-reading-time rule for this blog permits covering a thin slice of all I read in 2016. (For those interested, a list follows.) Some delightful finds, like the selected stories of Lucia Berlin or the selected poems of Joseph Hutchison, have had their mention excised. An 800-word piece involves more line editing than writing.
Much of the new work I read was originally written in other languages. Seeing Red, (Spanish), The Vegetarian (Korean) and A Spare Life (Macedonian) are startling and illuminating novels. A Spare Life’s story of twins joined at the temple is dense and hypnotic, the twins’ surgical separation paralleling the bloody fracturing of their country, Yugoslavia. You cannot read a society’s literature and continue to regard its people as alien. Now I need an Iranian novel.
I mostly read in bed, in the last hour before sleep. To ensure a good night’s sleep, they say you should power down all your devices two hours before, and read a physical book. We must specify a book’s physicality these days. Black print on bone-white paper. The turning page. Works for me most of the time.
I tend to alternate books. After the unrelenting intensity of The Vegetarian, I read post-apocalyptic Station Eleven, a fast read in a fascinating world, measured hope at its end. Between two of Ferrante’s Neapolitan quartet, the stories of two women, their troubled friendship and painful attempts to escape the poverty to which they were born, I read Dunning’s Denver. Italo Calvino said a classic is a book that has never finished saying what it has to say. None of these may become classics, but they’re worthy reads. Dunning’s noir story is set in 1920s Denver, at the height of the Colorado KKK’s power. The color line of those years runs through my neighborhood. Fact: Denver Mayor Ben Stapleton was a Klansman. He also accomplished major civic projects. It seems no cloud lacks a silver lining. We can only hope.
Waiting for the Barbarians, Memoirs of Hadrian, and Ragtime certainly have not finished saying what they have to say and I’d meant to read them for decades. Another joy of retirement: catching up on your reading. Excerpts from these three reflect my current concerns.
Like Coetzee’s South Africa, Waiting for the Barbarians’ fictionalized country builds barriers against the feared people whose land this was, or the unknown hordes looming at the borders. As all such defenses have in the past, these ramparts soon fall into absurdity.
“Empire has located its existence not in the smooth recurrent spinning time of the cycle of the seasons but in the jagged time of rise and fall, of beginning and end, of catastrophe. Empire dooms itself to live in history and plot against history. One thought alone preoccupies the submerged mind of Empire: how not to end, how not to die, how to prolong its era.”
So the American empire. Or the Russian. Or the empire of coal. Or of oil.
Ragtime is full of historical characters, including the anarchist Emma Goldman, who writes to actress Evelyn Nesbit and gives—way back in 1975—the best answer I’ve seen for why people voted for Trump:
“I am often asked the question How can the masses permit themselves to be exploited by the few. The answer is by being persuaded to identify with them. Carrying his newspaper with your picture the laborer goes home to his wife, an exhausted workhorse with the veins standing out in her legs, and he dreams not of justice but of being rich.”
Memoirs of Hadrian:
“All nations who have perished up to this time have done so for lack of generosity: Sparta would have survived longer had she given her Helots some interest in that survival; there is always a day when Atlas ceases to support the weight of the heavens, and his revolt shakes the earth. I wished to postpone as long as possible…the moment when the barbarians from without and the slaves within will fall upon a world which they have been forced to respect from afar, or to serve from below, but the profits of which are not for them. …even the most wretched…should have an interest in seeing Rome endure.”
Despite the insights attributed to him, the Roman Emperor Hadrian also built a wall, in Britain, started in AD 122. Local tribes overran it in AD 180, and perhaps a hundred years later, its stones were scavenged to build churches and houses. Portions have been preserved, made a World Heritage site. You can stroll along them, no barbarians on either side.
The List, 2016
The Shadow of the Wind, Carlos Ruiz Zafón
Station Eleven, Emily St. John Mandel
Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail, Cheryl Strayed
Voices From Chernobyl, Svetlana Alexievich
The Best American Essays 2015, Ed. Ariel Levy
The Bone Clocks, David Mitchell
Dalva, Jim Harrison
Waiting for the Barbarians, J.M. Coetzee
Making Toast: A Family Story. Roger Rosenblatt
Their Eyes Were Watching God, Zora Neale Hurston
Dust Tracks on a Road, Memoir, Zora Neale Hurston
Dibujos a lápiz, Agustín Cadena
Seeing Red, Lina Merune, translated from the Spanish by Megan McDowell
Ragtime, E. L. Doctorow
The World As Is: New & Selected Poems, 1972 – 2015, Joseph Hutchison
Memoirs of Hadrian, Marguerite Yourcenar, translated from the French by Grace Frick
The Neapolitan Series: My Brilliant Friend, The Story of a New Name, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, The Story of the Lost Child, Elena Ferrante, translated from the Italian by Ann Goldstein
Denver, John Dunning
The Argonauts, Maggie Nelson
Rilke Shake, Angélica Freitas, translated from the Portuguese by Hilary Kaplan
Our Obsidian Tongues, David Shook
The Best of Connie Willis: Award-Winning Stories
A Long Day’s Evening, Bilge Karasu, translated by Aron Aji and Fred Stark
The Vegetarian, Han Kang, translated from the Korean by Deborah Smith
Yo, la peor, Mónica Lavín
A Manual for Cleaning Women: Selected Stories, Lucia Berlin
A Spare Life, Lidija Dimkovska, translated from Macedonian by Christine E. Kramer
The list does not include the books I read in the process of developing a literary translation course in 2016.