Apart from a couple of fun things I can't talk about, I basically did nothing the last two weeks but read and bicycle. Which is to say, all is well! I read the following books so far in September...
The Tunnel by Ernesto Sabato – An isolated painter falls obsessively in love with a woman, is driven mad, kills her, in this classic of Argentinian existentialist literature. Funny how things which begin as transgressive end up becoming a cliché. Anyhow, if the essential premise doesn't seem like something you've had your fill of, this is worth your time. A grimly funny, well-observed portrait of jealousy and self-destruction.
The Gate of Angels by Penelope Fitzgerald – An anemic academic and an impoverished nurse in pre-war Cambridge are brought together by God, narrative trickery. One of these books where you're reading it and recognizing the artistry and can't figure out why you aren't enjoying the thing. I think I found it was so narrowly drawn that I couldn't get into any of the characters, but maybe I'd just eaten something that day that didn't agree with me. This is why I'm not a real book reviewer.
The Sum and Total of Now by Don Robertson – Morris Bird III, a child of 13 growing up in Cleveland in the 1950's, loves baseball, FDR, his grandmother, hates the Yankees and hypocrisy, struggles with sexual desire and the fundamental cruelty of human existence. A charming, thoroughly enjoyable coming of age story, although I could have done without the box scores. Still, lots and lots of fun, the voice here is, if not utterly original, still really perfectly done. I'm looking forward to the last book in the trilogy.
Children of Gebalawi by Naguib Mahfouz – An early 20th century Cairene ghetto is the setting for a retelling of the joint histories of the Abrahamic faiths, as well as a final section devoted to modernity and the death of God. The first 80% of the book are an attempt to turn stories of Adam, Moses etc. into earthy melodrama, and were sort of a mixed bag. But the final portion, a fabulously strange (and admirably nuanced) portrayal of the rise of secular humanity, more than pays for all. Weird, thoughtful, worth your time.
The Means of Escape by Penelope Fitzgerald – A mixed collection of short stories. All are subtle to the point of being elusive, some of them have some pretty mean stings snuck in, but some kind of...didn't? I'm going to keep going with Fitzgerald because I can recognize the artistry, even though both this and Gate of Angels left me a little flat.
A Mind to Murder by P.D. James – A murder in a mental hospital is solved (spoiler alert!) by James's poetry-writing, melancholic, brilliant sleuth. These books are interesting, half locked-room mystery and half probing dissection of the mores and psychoses of the various participants. I don't actually like locked room mysteries (I just never have the energy to play along at home, so to speak) but the writing and general psychological insight are enough to make up for the 'but how could the door have gotten locked from the inside?' bits and the unoriginal hero.
Lost Time: Lecturs on Proust in a Soviet Prison Camp by Jozef Czapski – Recollections of a series of lectures given by the author about Proust while incarcerated in a Soviet prison camp. À la recherche du temps perdu is the sort of monumental text which remains potent in the minds of anyone who managed to finish it, and has a way (I suspect) of getting locked into the lives of its readers, both because it's so lengthy and powerful an undertaking and because its general theme, of memory as being the bind which ties existence together (I'm simplifying, obviously) probably infect the reader with a certain degree of the author/hero's obsession for self-chronicling. I can vividly remember carrying around the Moncrieff editions through eastern Europe ten years ago, a brick in my backpack that I would peak at in Belarusian bus stations and the occasional squat. Which, admittedly, does not have the same cachet as a Soviet prison camp, but still it was fun to watch someone go through the same essential process, of remembering having read a thing. Anyway, this amounts mainly to a short series of thoughtful essays about one of the great literary works of the 20th century; I can't imagine anyone who hasn't read Proust would get much from this, but if you have this is one of that substantial body of Proust-related work worth reading (Mssr. Proust, also out from NYRB Classics, is another).
Ake by Wole Soyinka – Recollections of the author's early childhood in a town in pre-independence Nigeria. The dreamlike patina of childhood adds a fascinating dimension to the myths and customs of a culture now lost (Soyinka is brief but brutal on the effects of post-colonial globalization on his homeland), and the stories of his loving, enlightened family, and precocious academic career are a joy. Beautifully written, funny and engaging, as good a work about childhood as you are likely to read. Lots of fun.
A King Alone by Jean Giono – A lawman kills a werewolf in a small town in the French Alps, despairs when more werewolves don't show up. This is...a very odd book, written in such a fashion as to obscure most of the essential workings of the plot, both the action itself and our hero's reaction to it. Clever and deliberately unsatisfying, but still, you know, kind of unsatisfying.
The Children of Dynmouth by William Trevor – An adolescent sociopath exposes the evils of a seaside English town, calls into question the nature of God and human morality in this small masterpiece of a novel. A fairly conventional genre set up elevated by the author's genuine genius both with prose and in the small intricacies of his plots. Fucking William Trevor man, this guy could really do anything. Having read a half-dozen of his so far, I'm not sure why he doesn't seem more revered.
Earthly Powers by Anthony Burgess – A hack novelist looks back on his 80 years of life, with attention given to a wide variety of literary feuds, a lengthy struggle with his sexuality, and an intimate relationship with a fictionalized pope. This is a very big book, both in size and scope; virtually every historical development, from the the slow death of Britain's empire to the growth of the 60's counter-cultural movement, is lived through and contemplated by Burgess's erudite, embittered, somewhat exasperating protagonist. It is also a book by a very smart person about very smart people, which means you're in for a lot of caddy (if witty) asides about obscure topics. I think I've started to lose my taste for both of these kinds of books in recent years, which may explain my coolness towards what is, by any debate, an admirable work of art. Burgess is very smart, and this is a genuine attempt to work through the great complexities of human existence in the modern age. But it is also an awful mixed bag – his take on fascism and post-colonial Africa being in particular rather weak, although everything having to do with the fake Pope is pretty glorious. I'm not honestly sure I could recommend the time it would take to work through this, but then again I suspect there are a lot of very clever people who would disagree with me, so take that for what it's worth.
Men in Prison by Victor Serge – The 20th century's premier revolutionary recounts experiences of his time imprisoned for leftist activities/the general experience of incarceration. My admiration for Victor Serge is unbounded, and this is generally strong stuff; that said, there is (tragically) such an impressive variety of books given over to this topic, from Primo Levi to Varlam Shalamov, that I'm not sure I could consider this of the first water. I think Serge is a little better at fiction, actually, where he has more space for his imaginative gifts.
The Badlands by Oakley Hall – A widowed New Yorker becomes a cattle baron, gets caught up in the range wars. Is it too much to say that a good western is by definition a threnody, a meditation on the death of a 'lawless' land, its absorption and eradication by civilization? No, it isn't. In any event, this is a very good book, by the author of the even slightly more fabulous Warlock, an insightful meta-commentary on the Western which also serves as a delightfully executed example of that genre. A genuinely fabulous epic; it's not quite Lonesome Dove, but it's better than whatever other book you were planning on comparing to Lonesome Dove.
The Wind by Claude Simon – An emotionally stunted man becomes embroiled in a melodrama between a hotel maid and her abusive husband. Shades of Faulkner in the rolling, elaborate sentences, the effort to imbue commonplace reality with mythic beauty, and the willingness of its narrator to engage in lengthy descriptions of physical events to which he was not witness. I liked it but didn't love it.
A Childhood: The Biography of a Place by Henry Crews – Remembrances of a hand to mouth upbringing in rural Georgia; meditations on family, childhood diseases, and animal husbandry ensue. You could do a really fun comparison between this, Ake, and the Don Robertson one I read earlier in the month, but I’m not going to. Anyway, I liked it enough to want to pick up some more by the author.
We Always Treat Woman Too Well by Raymond Queneau – A nymphomaniac sassesnach corrupts the IRA squad which accidentally kidnaps her during the Easter Uprising in this satirical take on the erotic pulp novel. Perverse and funny.
Imperial Twilight: The Opium War and the End of China's Last Golden Age by Stephen R. Platt – A thoughtful, well-researched, well-written history of the opium war. A fascinating topic and a first rate work of popular history. Always fascinating to be reminded of the degree to which England's ad hoc empire (and for that matter, most major political developments) were the results of the small, selfish decisions made by harried or bigoted men with little actual understanding of the events taking place.
The Man in the Wooden Hat by Jane Gardam – The second in the 'Old Filth' trilogy advances the stories of characters dimly touched upon in the first work, offering an overlaying level of complexity to the story of a renowned Hong Kong lawyer. Another one in which I appreciated the artistry but wasn't overly enthused. I think it's possible this would have worked better as a single sustained work; some of the emotional heft of the revelations within might have landed harder.
The Poet Assasinated by Guillaume Apollinaire – The godfather of Dadaism writes a Rabelesian retelling of his birth and life, simultaneously satirizing the pre-war state of French letters. At 150 pages I can enjoy this form of surreal absurdity, though your tolerance for it may differ.
The Jokers by Albert Cossery – A coterie of Egyptian revolutionaries weaponize irony in an attempt to shatter the corrupt, all-encompassing structure of human civilization. Prescient and clever, if a little looser than it might be in terms of structure and climactic weight.
Dancing Lessons for the Advanced in Age by Bohumil Hrabal – I actually read this book last month and forgot to write a review of it, which is odd because it was thoroughly enjoyable. A sustained series of digressions from a drunken cad, delivered (one gathers) to a group of horrified bourgeois bathers. Amorous conquest, military misadventures, the end of the dual-monarchy, whats not to like? Lots and lots of fun, worth your time.