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:

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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!

“I want to love and to live”: More Anna Karenina

anna2I finished Anna Karenina yesterday–or, I should say, I finished Anna Karenina for the first time: it’s so large and complicated, and also so alien, so unfamiliar, to me that I hardly feel I’ve really read it yet. It was an odd, engrossing, and somewhat frustrating experience working my way through it. Despite its sprawl and its episodic character, it felt well built to me, with the two major plots running sometimes in parallel, sometimes intersecting, and always provoking questions about the significance of their juxtaposition. But I felt morally and thematically adrift much of the time, partly (presumably) because I’m new to the novel and there’s a lot of it to take in, and partly (perhaps) because the novel doesn’t work quite the way the big novels I know best work, which is to say, it sets out its characters and its problems without also providing a readerly guide in the form of, say, an intrusive narrator. There’s no friendly companion, no wry moralist, no philosophical or historical commentator–in other words, this is not a novel by Trollope, or Thackeray, or George Eliot. The unifying perspective–the set of ideas that make all the different parts of the novel into a whole–emerges only implicitly, and to me, so far, remains somewhat elusive.

I know there’s lots of accessible expert commentary out there to help me. After my earlier post on the novel, for instance, maryb linked to this piece at the New Yorker, which I’ve since skimmed and will return to read more slowly soon. A lot of other bloggers have written about Anna Karenina, too. But before I get too caught up in what other people have said, I’ll try to sort out some of my own impressions and ideas. I thought that for today, I’d start with Anna herself. It is, after all, nominally her novel.

In my last post I said that “I don’t understand her infidelity and thus can’t sympathize with it.” That remained true for me to the end. If anything, I became less sympathetic, in fact, as far as the supposed love affair between Anna and Vronsky was concerned. There’s something so self-absorbed about it, so petulantly self-indulgent. “For you and me,” Anna exclaims, “only one thing is important: whether we love each other. No other considerations exist.” Far from being a grand passion for which they heroically pit themselves against society, though, it’s a commonplace enough affair, as Anna herself seems to realize near the end:

‘What did he look for in me? Not so much love as the satisfaction of his vanity. . . . Yes, there was in him the triumph of successful vanity. Of course there was love too; but the greater part was pride in his success. He boasted of me. Now that is past.’

She describes her own love as growing “more and more passionate and egotistic,” but it seems very much that way from the first. Even when wracked with grief about being separated from her son, it’s her own painful choice she is fixated on, not Serezha’s loss: “I love those two beings only,” she tells Dolly, “and the one excludes the other! I cannot unite them, yet that is the one thing I desire.” At no point does she attain a broader vision of her actions, seeking to understand their meaning for other people the way that (yes, the inevitable comparison) Dorothea does after her ‘white night’ near the end of Middlemarch. “Was she alone in that scene? Was it her event only?” thinks Dorothea. For Anna, the answer to this question is surely “yes”: she has little concept of other people having an “equivalent center of self,” and her suffering, the product of a thwarted quest for selfish gratification (“Count Vronsky and I have also been unable to find that pleasure from which we expected so much”) leads her only deeper into her own neediness.

The more I read, though, and the more I gave up on my initial expectation that Anna Karenina was a transcendent love story, the less it mattered that Anna and Vronsky hardly seemed to deserve happiness–or sympathy. The commonplace, almost tediously conventional, nature of their relationship, for one thing, started to make its extraordinary consequences seem particularly absurd. Anna herself has no intention of being either a heroine or a martyr. “I don’t want you think that I wish to prove anything,” she tells Dolly; “I don’t want to prove anything: simply I wish to live, not hurting anyone but myself. I have a right to do that, have I not?” That’s a narrow idea of rights, to be sure, but at the same time, from the first page of the novel we know that adultery is commonplace in her world, and that many people (including, obviously, Dolly) learn to live with it. Of course, Stiva is a man, and the contrast between his cheerfully trivial infidelity and Anna’s catastrophic affair painfully exposes the sexual double-standard that is surely part of the novel’s larger moral calibration. Anna pays, and pays, and pays for her adultery, but it is not any more morally grievous than her brother’s, is it? And once we start asking that question–if anyone in Anna’s world really asked that question–the arbitrary and artificial rules of Society can hardly bear their own weight.

It’s not just the double-standard that works against Anna, though, and leads her to be, in effect, a prisoner in her own home as well as her own ego. For all her claim not to want to prove anything, she does want to live openly with Vronsky, to treat their relationship as a socially legitimate one precisely because it is not a furtive dalliance. I think this is part of the quality of sincerity which many characters admire in her. “In addition to her intelligence, grace, and beauty, she also possessed sincerity,” reflects Levin; “She did not wish to hide from him the hardships of her position.” What seems unnatural to Anna is hiding her feelings, hiding the truth of her situation. If everyone knows anyway, after all, what’s the point? “She has done what everybody, except myself, does secretly,” says Princess Myagkaya, “and she would not deceive, and has acted splendidly.” But it’s this “splendid” honesty (is it naïve? defiant?) that brings the judgment of Society down on her, as during the painful scene at the opera. Vronsky is “vexed” with her determination to expose herself in this way:

“To appear dressed as you are at the theatre, accompanied by the Princess, whom everybody knows, means not only to acknowledge your position as a fallen woman, but to throw down a challenge to Society–which means, to renounce it forever.”

But he does not say these words out loud to her, partly because he too does not know why she is so determined: “But how can she fail to understand it? And what is happening to her?” he wonders. It’s this episode that shows Anna, I think, the folly of her own grandiose, romantic insistence that “no other considerations exist” besides their love: as she sits in her box pretending to be tranquil and composed, “she felt as though pilloried.” Vronsky hopes his sister-in-law, Varya, will help rehabilitate her, but Varya insists that she “cannot do it! I have daughters growing up, and I must move in Society, for my husband’s sake. . . . I am not able to raise her.” “I don’t consider that she has fallen lower than hundreds of people whom you do receive,” returns Vronsky, but by removing the veil of pretense, Anna has made it impossible for herself to move among those for whom the appearance of virtue is, if not everything, at least enough.* Anna loses both social and moral mobility, as a result, and her relationship with Vronsky becomes the totality of her options. Her jealousy, fretfulness, and eventual desperation arise from this, particularly as she is painfully aware that Vronsky’s situation is different: “He has the right to go when and where he pleases. Not only to go away, but to leave me. He has every right and I have none at all.”

Anna’s agony, under these pressures, might have had a different outcome if she herself had a different character–if she were heroic, noble, or aspirational. Dorothea is only able to turn her grief into sympathetic action, after all, because she is already a profoundly compassionate person. Suffering has no particularly benevolent effect on Rosamond, and our judgment of her damaging egotism is infinitely complicated by our awareness (cultivated across 800 pages) that she lacks the capacity to do or be otherwise. I ended up thinking that it’s the same qualities in Anna that made me find her an unsympathetic character that turn her, finally, into a tragic character. What else can she do, at the end, except put an end to her own problems? Solving other people’s problems is never what her life has been about.

*I was reminded, during these exchanges, less of George Eliot’s novels and more of George Eliot’s life, as she knew that her most radical choice was not getting sexually involved with a married man but doing so openly, as if she had a right to. “Light and easily broken ties are what I neither desire theoretically nor could live for practically,” she wrote to a close friend after her elopement with Lewes. “Women who are satisfied with such ties do not act as I have done–they obtain what they desire and are still invited to dinner.” She staked her future on Lewes’s steadfastness, and she (and not he) endured social ostracization on their return.