Novel Readings 2012

2012 seems to have been a particularly rich and rewarding reading year – also, a particularly maddening and occasionally stultifying one. I suppose what I’m saying is that it was a reading year like any other one! As always, some books stand out, though sometimes as much for the challenge and gratification I found in writing about them, or for the conversations that my posts generated, as for the reading experience in itself. As is traditional, here’s a look back at the highlights.

peacockBook of the Year:

Molly Peacock, The Paper Garden. This book drew me to it by its physical beauty and turned out to be the right book for me at the right moment. This is the kind of serendipitous discovery that seems unlikely to happen except in a real (and well-curated) bookstore: for reasons I explain in my original post, it’s unlikely I would have deliberately sought out a book like this. I’m so glad I succumbed to its charms. My review is one of my favorite pieces of my own writing from 2012.

Other books I’m particularly glad I read or wrote about:

Hilary Mantel, Bring Up the Bodies. Well, of course. But then, it’s no small feat to follow up the brilliant Wolf Hall with something equally brilliant. I did think, as I read it, that it would have been just a teensy bit more exciting if Mantel–who is a prose virtuoso–had decided to approach each novel in her Cromwell trilogy in a different way, a different voice. But the close third-person narration is just as compelling and even more morally complex here than in the first volume, and my expectations are now sky-high for the concluding one.

T. H. White, The Once and Future King. Another surprise: I don’t “do” fantasy any more than I “do” the 18th century, and yet from the first page I loved this novel. I can’t think of another novel I’ve read recently–not just in 2012 but in several years–that had this much emotional range. For once, the adjective “Dickensian” doesn’t seem out of place, as this really is fiction written to change how you think as well as to make you laugh and cry.

Gustave Flaubert, Madame Bovary. Along with St. Aubyn’s Patrick Melrose novels, Madame Bovary was the most thought-provoking read of 2012 for me as a critic, because it was the least congenial for me as a reader. Even while I couldn’t deny its mastery, I couldn’t help but decry its grim and limited worldview. Yes, we can all sometimes be Emma Bovary, but most of us will surely never be exclusively so self-absorbed or self-deceived. If we are, shame on us, and we need books that help us out of that moral rut even more.

Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina. I’ve only just finished Anna Karenina so I’m still thinking about it. I wasn’t swept up in it, but then, limited as my experience with Tolstoy is, I guess that shouldn’t have surprised me: there’s a quality of ruthlessness in his fiction that I’d noticed before.

Edward St. Aubyn, The Patrick Melrose Novels. I abhorred and admired these novels in about equal measure. Actually, I think by the end of At Last admiration had won out, but it was a close thing.

Helen DeWitt, Lightning Rods. Another surprise. I don’t think any author except DeWitt could have pulled this off in a way I would, if not exactly enjoy, at least applaud.

Susan Messer, Grand River and Joy. I was completely absorbed by this novel set in Detroit around the time of the 1967 riot and focusing on tensions “between blacks and Jews but [also] between individual identities and group allegiances, between narrowly-defined protective self-interest and the desire to reach out and make connections.”

J. G. Farrell, The Siege of Krishnapur. I liked this as much as I liked the first in the trilogy, Troubles. If you want to read something truly substantial about Farrell, skip my post and read Dorian Stuber’s essay on him in Open Letters.

Erich Maria Remarque, All Quiet on the Western Front. The ultimate novel of the ‘lost generation’: “We are forlorn like children, and experienced like old men, we are crude and sorrowful and superficial–I believe we are lost.”

Books I didn’t much like:

Jean Rhys, Wide Sargasso Sea. Meh.

Ford Madox Ford, The Good Soldier. Hey, it’s my blog, isn’t it?

Low point of my reading year:

George Sand, Indiana. Don’t worry, George: it’s not you, it’s me! Or maybe not.

Books I’m especially looking forward to reading in 2013:


All the ones in my Christmas loot pile, of course. But also:

Black Lamb and Grey Falcon. It has been fabulous so far, and my only (lame) excuses for not having persisted are not having committed deliberately enough (I proved to myself with Anna Karenina this month that being busy with other things is no reason not to get through a doorstopper) and its weight: there’s no way you can tuck this volume in your purse for reading at odd moments.

The Singapore Grip. One more in Farrell’s Empire Trilogy, and I’m sure it will be as strange and brilliant and darkly comic as the others.

The rest of the Raj Quartet. I found The Jewel in the Crown engrossing and complex and am keen to make my way through the next volumes.

War and Peace. This has featured in this “to read” list for several years now; maybe 2013 is the year I’ll finally get it done.

Patrick Leigh Fermor’s A Time of Gifts. This is another book I picked up on my spring trip to Boston and one of the few from that expedition that I haven’t read yet. Wallace Stegner’s Angle of Repose is another, and that’s high on my TBR pile too.

Up next, though, will be Breakfast at Tiffany’s, which is the January book for my local book club, and then Doctor Glas, which is the next read for the Slaves of Golconda.

Notable Posts of 2012:

Finally, it seems worth noting a couple of posts that weren’t exactly reviews but that generated more excitement than is usual in this quiet corner of the internet:

Your book club wants to read Middlemarch? Great idea! I have not forgotten or abandoned the idea of creating the “Middlemarch for Book Club” site I proclaimed so boldly here. In fact, it already exists in skeletal form. I wanted to do it well, though, and thus took my time over it at first, and then I put it on the back burner and then it was the new term. One of my resolutions for 2013 is to build more of it and then start making it available in a ‘beta’ version. It’s not going to be anything too fancy: I’m just using WordPress to set it up. But if people seem to like it and find it valuable, it’s the kind of thing I might eventually seek out some funding for and try to make really good.

How to Read a Victorian Novel. I put this together as part of Molly Templeton’s call for responses to the NYTBR “How-To” issue that seemed to think women didn’t know how to do much of interest beyond cook and raise children. How does that even happen, in 2012? Where are the editors? What are they thinking, when they see a cover graphic like that? Anyway, the resulting tumblr turned into something quite amazing, and it was really energizing to be a part of it. Thanks to a couple of high-profile links to it, this is my most-read post of all time.

Thanks to everyone who read and commented on Novel Readings in 2012. Happy New Year!

Helen DeWitt, Lightning Rods

It wasn’t until I was nearly finished this outrageous and pitch-perfect satire that I realized it wasn’t really very funny. In fact (with apologies to Ford Madox Ford) I think I would even call it one of the saddest stories I’ve ever read. It’s sad partly because of the unforgiving picture it paints of contemporary American society, where everything’s for sale if you can only find the right pitch and the right market, where people only pay lip-service to ideals of equity and diversity but long for ways to subvert the pressure for genuine improvement, where women can make more by selling themselves than by doing their jobs. DeWitt has a particularly ruthless eye for banality–thinking about my surprise that this novel is by the author of The Last Samurai, it occurred to me that The Last Samurai is founded on a similarly harsh critique of people’s appetite for cheap substitutes. There it’s the “blunt attack on popular taste” exemplified by Sybilla’s insistence that Ludo realize what’s wrong with her samples of it (including a Liberace tape and a drawing by Lord Leighton). She tells him, “You will not be ready to know your father until you can see what’s wrong with these things”:

Even when you see what’s wrong you won’t really be ready. You should not know your father when you have learnt to despise the people who have made these things. Perhaps it would be all right when you have learnt to pity them, or if there is some state of grace beyond pity when you have reached that state.

The satire, the humour, of Lightning Rods (and it is often very funny, laugh-out-loud funny) seems to me to be driven by a similar feeling of utter contempt, though in this case for a different category: not for aesthetic mediocrities but for people who will believe any story that makes them accept what they already want, or helps them do what they’ve decided they need to do even if they know it’s wrong or unacceptable, or who allow a slapdash superficial glossy marketing version of morality to override their better instincts. Lightning Rods is sad because it’s right to hate that substitution of fake for real, and because there’s a lot of that going around these days.

But that’s not the sadness in the novel that really touched me. The biggest loss I was feeling, moving mentally from The Last Samurai to Lightning Rods, was the loss of the tremendous compassion that compensated there for Sybilla’s anger and disdain. If The Last Samurai were Sybilla’s novel only, it would have impressed me but I could not have loved it. Sybilla needs the redemptive companionship (in her life and in the novel) of Ludo. It’s too hard to go forward–and Sybilla is conspicuously failing to do that–stuck in an attitude of contemptuous superiority. It’s too close to despair and too alienating. You need a glimpse of some other possibility, and you need some forgiveness. Sybilla acknowledges that when she talks about the “state of grace beyond pity.” She knows it’s possible; she even feels it herself after Yamamoto’s concert. For most of Lightning Rods, I could not find any such compensation, any way out of the relentless forward march of Joe’s absurd but perfectly logical (and perfectly rationalized) success story. DeWitt is just so good: there are no cracks in the tone or point of view of the novel. That it’s a tone and point of view that we can be certain are anathema to DeWitt (it’s satire, after all) makes it all the more impressive that she can be so utterly convincing. (That’s also the great risk she takes: 273 pages in the vocabulary of spin and sales pitches and self-justification is a lot of pages. “The way I look at it is,” a characteristic passage begins..and then it follows, sentence after pitiless sentence, propelling us towards assent to the lowest estimates of what people are capable of, what they work for, what they are worth, what their aspirations should be. “The fact is”–and we’re off again.

The fact is there is no perfect job. The perfect job does not exist. People are people. Any job you go to, you’re always going to find people. And the way I look at it is, let’s say somebody steps out of line. You’ve got to keep a sense of proportion about these things.

There’s all that–and almost everybody in the novel is equally adept at it–and there’s Joe’s salesman rhetoric [“It’s important to give that new job 101%, 25 hours a day, 366 days a year. You simply can’t afford to have any distractions.]” Who really wants to spend 273 pages in this company, listening to these voices? It’s riskier, in a way, than something like “A Modest Proposal” because it is so banal. Swift’s excesses are wild, fun, dangerous–instead of boiled children, DeWitt gives us PVC tights and adjustable toilets.)

But back to the sadness. The polish of the novel is so impeccable, the premise so absurd, and the situations presented with such perfect deadpan comedy, that I couldn’t help but appreciate it, but I really wasn’t liking it at all. Then there came a little scene near the end where Joe is taken back, suddenly, to his first sales job, selling (or at least trying to sell) copies of the Encyclopedia Brittanica and the difference between what he could be selling and what he is selling confronts him and the tone of resolute optimism dies away, just for a page or so. Joe has made his fortune by accepting people “the way they are. Not how they ought to be.” This realism has made him a rich, successful man. But it’s not realism: it’s defeatism. Joe failed selling encyclopedias because “people could not make a living out of appealing to people’s better nature.” That would have been his first choice: to live in a world where that was possible, where people wanted encyclopedias rather than routinized anonymous sex (or the money it could earn them). “We live in the kind of world where people end up with their third or fourth or fifth choice because there just isn’t the money in their first choice”;

Every once in a while you get this glimpse of what the world would be like, not if everyone was perfect, but if just a few more people were just a little bit better than they are. You get this glimpse of a world where people could get by, maybe not with their first choice, but with a close second.

Joe sets to work talking himself out of the gloom this vision casts over him: “You’re making a living out of a world you didn’t make, out of people who evolved the way they happen to evolve. All you can ever do is try to increase the net sum of human happiness to the best of your ability.” It’s sad that his pep talk succeeds. It’s sad that his epiphany leads him, not to a brilliant new strategy for selling the Encyclopedia Brittanica, but to a brilliant new strategy for expanding his business into Christian ‘family values’ territory. It’s sad that this strategy works. But it’s saddest of all that he knows that what will sell is not what appeals to our better nature. There’s compassion here after all, for Joe’s knowledge (well hidden under his patter) that what he’s selling isn’t worth buying. The annoying, tireless, slick veneer of the novel is like the $1000 suit he buys to help him launch Lightning Rods: it’s an impeccably tailored garment covering up human failure, even tragedy. There’s a glimmer of that “grace beyond pity” in DeWitt’s treatment of Joe, it turns out.  But is there any of it for us? How can we judge Joe if he’s only selling what we’ll buy, after all?

Helen DeWitt, The Last Samurai

samurai (1)The Last Samurai is the story of a single mother, Sybilla, and her son, whom she calls “Ludo”–though on his birth certificate it says either ‘David’ or ‘Stephen,’ ‘one or the other.’ It makes sense that Sybilla would consider it pointless to be certain, because one of the things this novel is about is precisely how we figure out and then live up to who we think we are. It’s also about the accidents that determine the lives we lead, regardless of who we might be, and about the choices and values and loves and hates and languages and books and ideas and music and art and movies and people that constitute those lives and make them worth living–or not. It’s a celebration of genius and an attack on mediocrity, a paean to the human capacity to create and learn and think and reason and a lament for the seductions of banality. It’s about quests and heroes and, of course samurai. Its parade of erudition is at once dazzling and surprisingly entertaining, and also inspiring, because it’s in the service of intellectual curiosity and love of knowledge, not accomplishment or grades or prizes.

It’s Ludo’s curiosity, in particular, that gives the novel its momentum: he is a child prodigy whose brilliance at once thrills and terrifies his mother. Ludo’s voice, and his quest for his father, eventually take over the novel from Sybilla, but she remains its presiding genius; without her, Ludo’s endless questions would go unanswered. Though their relationship is never sentimental (indeed, they rarely seem like parent and child, at least in the ways we would casually expect), their attempts to care for each other have an emotional intensity and an intellectual integrity that are ultimately very moving. A book so extravantly episodic and allusive risks losing its humanity. Somehow, miraculously, for all its jouissance, all its postmodern display, The Last Samurai never does.

dewittThis is a novel that feels exceptionally difficult (and more than usually pointless) to excerpt from–and yet, the temptation! And it incorporates so much that it’s difficult to know what to single out for commentary. One aspect of it that is obviously very important, both structurally and thematically, is its engagement with Kurosawa’s The Seven Samurai (which I have never seen–but the range of things alluded to in this novel that I don’t know first-hand is so long there’s no point remarking them all). The Seven Samurai is Sybilla’s favourite film. Not only does she watch it over and over, but she thinks of it as taking the place of a male role model in Ludo’s life. What she doesn’t expect, when she first shows it to him (when he’s five) is that it will prompt him to demand to learn Japanese.

L: When are you going to teach me Japanese?

I: I don’t know enough to teach you.

L: You could teach me what you know.

I: [NO NO NO NO NO] Well

L: Please

I: Well

L: Please

Voice of Sweet Reason: You’ve started so many other things I think you should work on them more before you start something new.

L: How much more?

I: Well

L: How much more?

The last thing I want is to be teaching a five-year-old a language I have not yet succeeded in teaching myself.

I: I’ll think about it. . . .

Her problem is that Ludo is urgent with his demands to learn, not just Japanese, but Latin and Greek and much much more, and that there isn’t, really, any reason not to teach him whatever he wants to know except the widespread (mis)understanding that he is too young for this kind of thing–a view they encounter over and over as they ride the Circle Line to keep warm:

. . . he has been reading the Odyssey enough for a straw poll of Circle Line opinion on the subject of small children & Greek.

Amazing: 7

Far too young: 10

Only pretending to read it: 6

Excellent idea as etymology so helpful for spelling: 19

Excellent idea as inflected languages so helpful for computer programming: 8

Excellent idea as classics indispensable for understanding of English literature: 7

Excellent idea as Greek so helpful for reading New Testament, came through eye of needle for example mistranslation of very simple word for rope: 3

Terrible idea as study of classical languages embedded in education system productive of divisive society: 5

Terrible idea as overemphasis on study of dead languages directly responsible for neglect of sciences and industrial decline and uncompetitiveness of Britain: 10

Stupid idea as he should be playing football: 1

Stupid idea as he should be studying Hebrew & learning about his Jewish heritage: 1

Marvellous idea as spelling and grammar not taught in schools: 24

(Respondents: 35; Abstentions: 1,000?)

Oh, & almost forgot:

Marvellous idea as Homer so marvellous in Greek: 0

Marvellous idea as Greek such a marvellous language: 0

 What place genius, what price genius, in a world like this? These are among the difficult questions Sybilla faces, as she reads about the education (and eventual breakdown) of John Stuart Mill, or about “the example of Mr. Ma (father of the famous cellist).”

dewitt2One of the most fascinating explorations of this in the novel is the story of the pianist Kenzo Yamamoto, who becomes obsessed, not with how to play a particular note or phrase or piece, but with how else you could play it, or how else it could sound:

Yamamoto: To put it another way, let’s just take a little phrase on the piano, it sounds one way if you’ve just heard a big drum and another way if you’ve heard a gourd and another way if you’ve heard the phrase on another instrument and another way again if you’ve just heard nothing at all–there are all kinds of ways you can hear the same sound. And then, if you’re practising, you hear a phrase differently depending on how you’ve just played it, you might play it twenty or thirty different ways and what it actually is at any time depends on those things it might be–

He gives a disastrous concert at Wigmore Hall in which he played “about 20 minutes of drum music after each of six [Chopin] Mazurkas . . . with the result that the concert ended at 2:30 in the morning & people missed their trains & were unhappy.” Sybilla takes Ludo to hear Yamamoto in concert at the Royal Festival Hall. The first half is uneventful, but after the interval, Yamamoto begins to play the Brahms Ballade Op. 10 No. 1, first just phrases and then eventually the whole piece:

For the next seven and a half hours Yamamoto played Op. 10 No. 1 in D minor, and sometimes he seemed to play it exactly the same five times running but next to the sound of a bell or an electric drill or once even a bagpipe and sometimes he played it one way next to one thing and another way next to another. . . .

Eventually he plays it through nine times along with a tape of traffic and footsteps, then when the tape stops and there is silence he plays it “so that you heard it after and over the silence.” Then, after all those hours playing Op. 10 No. 1, the audience is “shocked to hear in quick succession Op. 10 No. 2 in D major, Op. 10 No. 3 in B minor and Op. 10 No. 4 in B major, and you only heard them once each”:

It was as if after the illusion that you could have a thing 500 ways without giving up one he said No, there is only one chance at life once gone it is gone for good you must seize the moment before it goes, tears were streaming down my face as I heard these three pieces each with just one chance of being heard if there was a mistake then the piece was played just once with a mistake if there was some other way to play the piece you heard what you heard and it was time to go home.

samuraiHer bitterness at the inadequacies of the Circle Line riders is balanced by this moment of grace. Why do we put such limits, not just on our children, but on our art? Much, much later in the novel, Yamamoto says to Ludo, “When you play a piece of music there are so many different ways you could play it. You keep asking yourself what if. You try this and you say but what if and you try that. When you buy a CD you get one answer to the question. You never get the what if.” There’s no place for Yamamoto’s “what if” in the world of concert halls and recording studios and trains to catch.

The risk DeWitt takes is that this dedication to the highest possible forms becomes, or at least will come across as, sheer elitism, a blunt attack on popular taste. About a third of the way through the novel, pestered endlessly by Ludo for the name of his father, Sybilla presents him with a challenge: she gives him a tape of Liberace, a drawing by Lord Leighton, and a magazine article and tells him “You will not be ready to know your father until you can see what’s wrong with these things.” More than that,

Even when you see what’s wrong you won’t really be ready. You should not know your father when you have learnt to despise the people who have made these things. Perhaps it would be all right when you have learnt to pity them, or if there is some state of grace beyond pity when you have reached that state.

As Ludo takes over as the novel’s narrator and the plot (to the extent that it is linear) becomes the story of his attempt to find (or choose) his father, this quest to discern the failings of Liberace (which is, not incidentally, also  the code name Sybilla uses for Ludo’s father), of Lord Leighton, and of the boring magazine article runs in parallel. I wasn’t sure I wanted Ludo to grow up into another Sybilla, or even to pass her test–Sybilla herself does not live happily or  easily with her ideas, after all–and yet the whole book pits itself against relaxing into easy compromises, whether moral or ethical or aesthetic (and I’m not sure that the novel allows for a distinction between these). There’s nothing easy about Ludo’s progress towards the novel’s conclusion, but I think that through each of his encounters with potential fathers, he learns and grows in ways that eventually exceed what Sybilla wanted, or even thought was possible, for him.

There’s much more to The Last Samurai than this, but if I started listing off more of its ingredients it would make the novel sound like a kind of flamboyant bricolage rather than the gratifyingly readerly treat it is.