Books I Read December 4th, 2016

Life continues apace. I spent Thanksgiving burning off calories by chasing my nephew around my parent's house, and reading about Nazis for an article I was thinking of writing. Back in the city the temperature is nearly appropriate to the season, and it would require a deeply sick person not to feel some dim twinge of joy at being able to spend the Christmas season in New York. Happy to report I am not (yet quite so diseased.

The Fountain Overflows By Rebecca West – I consider Rebecca West's brilliant, idiosyncratic, fifteen hundred page pseudo-travelogue Black Lamb and Gray Falcon to be one of the great works of 20th century literature, a book of abiding genius, one which inspired me as a youth and continues to do so to the present day. Despite this reverence I have never actually gotten around to reading anything else by the Dame, in part because she is not particularly well read any longer (to the shame of the modern literary establishment) and thus it is relatively difficult to but probably mostly because I regard the aforementioned with so much reverence that it was unrealistic to suppose I would enjoy anything else she had written as much. Nor would I suggest that this novel reaches such peaks of brilliance, but then again very few things ever have. The story of a family of (mostly) misguided geniuses – a mother of faded musical genius, two daughters blessed with similar gifts, a mercurial father who's utter failures as a parent do not cancel out an intellectual and moral brilliance. It is rich in its detail of an England before World War I, an England long vanished, of its mores and customs, of its follies and its small joys which will never again return. I confess it took me a while to get into, but I was glad I stuck with it by the end. West is a unique talent, and if it is somewhat less evident here than it is in Black Lamb etc, still this is more than worth your time. The writing is fabulous, the observations of true merit, and the storyline, which seems at first to sprawl out a bit pointlessly, comes together gloriously in the end.

Diary of a Man in Despair by Friedrech Reck – A work of abiding moral brilliance, I hope to discuss it a bit more in the future.

The Snows of Yesteryear by Gregor von Rezzori – So I read Ermine in Czernopol a few months back, and it was one of those books that I didn't exactly enjoy but which made me want to read something else by the author. Rezzori, a German-speaking mutt hailing from what is now a rather barren and homogenous portion of Ukraine but what was, before the fall of the Dual Monarchy, a vibrant ethnic stew of Eastern Europeans, essentially does a Proust here, recalling, in vivid and glorious detail, the events of his childhood. Framed as recollections of five people who played critical roles in his childhood, his wet nurse, his mother, his father, his sister, and a governess, Rezzori takes us to a world in its death throes, dismantled by World War I and about to be wiped away completely by World War II. It is an audacious task, to mimic one of history's supreme literary luminaries, but Rezzori does not shame himself. The writing is brilliant, a bit flowery perhaps but that's part of the fun of the thing, its loving descriptions of a vanished world. He manages to walk the most glorious tightrope here between romanticism and cold-eyed cynicism, and his descriptions of his loved ones, all long dead by the time he was writing this book, are loving but entirely unsentimental. These were deeply flawed people, as was Rezzori (as are all of us (let's not get off topic)), and though he looks back upon them with a love only deepened by time he in unsparing in his criticism of their follies, and his follies, and the follies of the age. Haunting and beautiful, one of my favorites of 2016.

Fat City by Leonard Gardner – This was a cheery one. About a cast of hard luck sorts trying to make a bit of money in the squalid, despairing world of semi-pro boxing in southern California in the early or mid 60's, I guess. An uncompromising though not cruel view of an impoverished sub class, living on the bare fringes of society. Actually sort of an unintentional theme of books this month has been a strong sense of place, and this one is no exception. I'm actually not entirely sure of Gardner's background but one feels not only that the specifics of this are right, the worn gyms and the routine of the fruit and vegetable pickers who cannot find more solid work, but that the spirit of the characters, their misery and the of necessity endurance with which they survive it. There's a funny joke in the intro to the effect that Gardner is a real writer's writer sort, which is indeed true – the bleakness of this vision it not one likely to find favor with many readers, but those who persevere will be rewarded. It's also not real long.