2016 Year in Reading

Considering its tumultuous and largely depressing events as well as my own poor physical and mental health at various times, I’m surprised I read as much as I did last year. But those challenges meant I needed the comfort of books more than ever.

I read 79 books in 2016: 54% were by women and 46% by men; 68% were written in English and 32% in translation.

A few words about my favourites, in no particular order:

The Best of the Best:

I wrote about (and have already linked to) my absolute favourites for Open Letters Monthly. But I can’t say enough good things about them so I’ll list them again here:

More was Lost—Eleanor Perényi

I adore this book—just thinking about it makes me smile. But I haven’t heard anyone else talking about it, and so I just want to trumpet its moving elegance over and over again. Do you like Lubitsch? Of course you do. Then you’re going to like this book. My list is stacked with New York Review Books, but this year I am most grateful to my favourite press for reissuing this little marvel, the story of an American who falls in love with a Hungarian and experiences a world that is on the point of vanishing. I wrote about it here.

Eline Vere-Louis Couperus

You can read my thoughts on this magnificent 19th century Dutch novel of female anxiety here.

The Fifth Season & The Obelisk Gate—N. K. Jemisin

2016 was the year I started reading science fiction again after a twenty or thirty year absence. I’ve a long way to go to get up to speed, but I think we’re all going to need more SF in the coming years, not as escapism but as laboratories for how to resist the coming darkness.

These two novels, the first parts of the Broken Earth Trilogy, offer an allegory for the psychic damage minorities experience every day—as if Du Bois’s double consciousness was used as the basis for an exciting and carefully detailed epic story. I hope the final volume will be out in 2017.

Best of the rest:

The Trespasser—Tana French

French made the list last year, too. For me she is the best crime writer today, period, and shows no signs of falling off with this excellent, smart novel that continues her preoccupation with friendship. What’s new is how overtly the twists of the investigation are offered as an allegory for the process of storytelling. I hope that doesn’t sound boring or airy-fairy. The book’s as gripping as all her others.

The Door—Magda Szabó

On vacation at the end of the year I had some good reading time and made my way through a number of interesting books. But the most amazing one—so great that it’s jumped on to this list—was this Hungarian novel from 1987. Szabó has this power, I don’t know how to describe it, it’s not as though her style is particularly flashy or anything. It’s the story of a woman and her housekeeper. And about the history of Hungary in the 20th Century. It’s as good on psychology as on politics. None of these things come even close to suggesting how awesome it is. All I can say is that I was just riveted. I’ve got another of her books now and hope to write about them together soon.

Three by Patrick Leigh Fermor

A Time of Gifts; Between the Woods and the Water; The Broken Road

I wrote a short appreciation of these extraordinary travel books for Open Letters Monthly back in the summer. In 1933, the eighteen-year-old Fermor set off to walk across Europe, from the Hook of Holland to Constantinople. It took the rest of his life to tell the story, but what amazing books these are, so full of joy and life, and neither naïve nor knowing. Can’t think of anyone else who has captured as well as Fermor that sense of heady reinvention you sometimes feel, especially as a young person, when living abroad.

The Vegetarian—Han Kang

Wasn’t sure about this one at first—kept wanting it to be more like Atwood’s Edible Woman, which it superficially resembles—but decided to teach it later in the year and seeing my students take to it so strongly made me like it so much more. A book about a woman who just really wants to be a plant, and the people in her life who want other things for her. Han tackles this without ever letting us inside the protagonist’s head: impressive. Feel I could get a lot more from this book if I knew more (i.e. anything) about modern Korean history. Looking forward to reading Human Acts in 2017.

What Belongs to You—Garth Greenwell

Critically acclaimed for a good reason. Proustian sentences, good sex scenes, impressive ability to generate menace. Had the good fortune to hear Greenwell at the Little Rock Literary Festival: he was smart and kind. Started to write about the book and got bogged down but one day I am going to write an essay about the uncanny parallels between what happens to the narrator of this novel and to Patrick Leigh Fermor, as recounted in The Broken Road, in Varna, Bulgaria.

Our Spoons Came from Woolworths—Barbara Comyns

Less bleak than Comyns’s amazing The Vet’s Daughter (on the 2015 list) but just as terrific. The wonder here is the vast tonal range of the narrator’s voice. Sometimes Sophia is naïve (“I had a kind of idea if you controlled your mind and said ‘I won’t have any babies’ very hard, they most likely wouldn’t come”) and sometimes she’s hilariously, ruefully inept (making an impromptu meal of spaghetti she finds a piece of dry cheese: “it grated so fine I thought afterwards it must have been a knife handle”). She’s also no-nonsense (she tells a man who has fallen in love with her and is masochistically kissing the bottom of her skirt, “Don’t do that. The hem is coming undone already”) and knowing (describing that same man, who for a time becomes her lover, she says, “His dark face became full of animation when he talked (I think the right word to use for his face would be mobile)”). British women writers of the mid twentieth century are still criminally underrated.

Best group reading experience:

Jean Giono’s Hill. A terrific book that speaks to us today in ways its author surely couldn’t have anticipated. My take here. Thanks to Scott for co-hosting and to Meredith, Grant, Frances, Melissa and others for reading along with.

Most revelatory experience of a book I’ve taught many times:

Lots of contenders here (Woolf, Jacob’s Room, To the Lighthouse, Three Guineas (I really love that one), Lawrence, Sons and Lovers) but the winner has to be Imre Kertesz’s Fatelessness, which is one of the greatest novels about the Holocaust. Only now, on my fourth or fifth go round with this book, and thanks in large part to some stellar students who really responded to it, do I feel I’m getting the hang of this one.  I blogged about teaching it here.

Most revelatory experience of a writer I’ve taught many times:

Ida Fink. I’ve taught a few of her amazing short stories about the Holocaust before but only this year, thanks to the scholar Sara Horowitz, did I really get what Fink was up to. She didn’t write much, just two short story collections and a novel, but man, what a writer. Want to write about her in 2017.

Two books about hotels:

Grand Hotel by Vicky Baum (1929) and A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles (2016). In my head I composed a mini-essay comparing these books, which I happened to read back to back. Both consider the transience of hotel life, though Gentleman inverts the idea by making its protagonist a nobleman in 1920s Russia who can’t quite be done away with by the new regime because of his service to the cause in the past and so is put under house arrest in Moscow’s luxurious Metropol Hotel.

Baum’s book might be better—it holds up amazingly well, and becomes a real page-turner in its last third—but I enjoyed Towles’s more. It’s sweeter and that’s what I needed in the days after the election. I kept wondering if its pleasures weren’t in fact too regressive, but the book would regularly throw little curve balls, show its self-consciousness about the difficulties of structuring a book around a seemingly perfect protagonist. And sometimes you just want a suave, kind, handsome, intelligent, well-manner character! Anyway, you should read both of these books, they are terrific. I’m unconvinced anyone will be reissuing Towles in 80 years, but that’s okay, some books we just need for today.

Best book about life during the rise of fascism:

Plenty of contenders, but Irmgard Keun’s After Midnight made a big impression on me.

Reliable pleasures:

Ellis Peters’s Cadfael books (have read the first four so far, but need to ration: important to know they are still out there for me to savour); Hans Olav Lahlum’s K2 series (the last one was a bit bloated but I’m still a fan); Denise Mina (she keeps on going from strength to strength)

Light reading winners:

Natasha Pulley, The Watchmaker of Filigree Street (pleasing alternate history-steampunk-thing all about queer and non-queer friendship—very much look forward to the sequel in 2017); Joe Ide, IQ (smart and funny Sherlock update in East Long Beach. Not suspenseful, really, but totally enjoyable); Dorothy Sayers, Strong Poison (I finally met Harriet Vane! Must read the others)

Finally, although, I didn’t actually read that much Jean Rhys this year, one of the most satisfying parts of the year was contributing this post on my experiences teaching her work to students to the Jean Rhys event co-hosted by Jacqui and Eric.

Above all, my heartfelt thanks to everyone who’s visited the blog in the past year. Your comments, whether here or on Twitter or Facebook or even in person, mean so much to me. Here’s to more good reading and good talk about our reading in 2017.

“A Long Continuity”: Eleanor Perényi’s More Was Lost

In 1937, the nineteen-year-old Eleanor Stone, daughter of a career naval officer and a novelist, was invited to a dinner party at the American legation in Budapest. There she met an Oxford-educated, communist-sympathizing Hungarian nobleman, Baron Zsigmon (Zsiga) Perényi. He called on her the next day and they spent the rest of her week in Budapest together. On her last evening, they went out to dinner. Here’s how the now Eleanor Perényi would describe it a decade later in her wonderful memoir More Was Lost:

We sat and drank Tokay for a long time. I felt surprisingly miserable.

At last he said, “It’s a pity we are both so poor.”

“Why do you say that?”

“Because otherwise we could perhaps marry.”

I looked into my wineglass.

“Yes, we could,”

There was another pause which seemed to me interminable. Then he said, “Do you think you could marry me anyway?”

“I think I could decidedly.”

So we were engaged.

This could come from a Lubitsch movie, and indeed both Eleanor and Zsiga have qualities recognizable from the pictures of that time—her pluck, his debonair decency (he always introduces bad news, and there’s quite a lot of it in this book, by saying, “Fancy, darling…”).

But even if this passage reads like a more reticent version of the “meet cute” scenes so beloved of 1930s Hollywood, there’s nothing cute about this book. Zsiga gives up his job in Budapest so that the two of them can return to and manage his ancestral home of Szöllös. Sounds romantic, but there are several problems with this idea. Eleanor especially has no idea how to run an estate. They don’t have any money. And worst of all the estate isn’t even in Hungary anymore. It was part of the territory given to the Czechs after WWI: Zsiga needs a passport and permission from the authorities to be there at all.

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The young couple isn’t dissuaded by these difficulties—but they don’t ignore them either. Eleanor in particular sees things for what they are. She is hardly the stereotypical naïve American abroad. It might seem as though she has fallen into a fairytale, but she’s a careful, thoroughly unsentimental observer of her situation. Consider for example her description of the estate at Szöllös:

The property was at the exact geographical end of the Danubian plane, and at the beginning of the Carpathians. Our farm was on the plain, and on a mountain that was the first spur of the Carpathians we had a large forest, and a vineyard. The farm was managed by a tenant. He paid us an outrageously low rent, but the forest and the vineyard brought in some money too. An old tutor managed them. He did what he could, but it was a thankless job, and he was tired of it. The place was not in good condition.

Hardly rosy. And here she is meditating on the new circumstances of her life:

 A young couple are supposed to be lucky if they can build their own home. It may be so. For me, the theory did not work that way. My favorite idea as a child was what happened in French fairy stories. You were lost in a forest, and suddenly you came on a castle, which in some way had been left for you to wander in. Sometimes, of course, there were sleeping princes, but in one special one there were cats dressed like Louis XIV, who waited on you. Sometimes it was empty, but it always belonged to you without any effort on your part. Maybe it’s incorrigible laziness, but I like things to be ready-made. And when I went into my new home, I had just the feeling of the child’s story. It was all there waiting for me. This house was the result of the imaginations of other people. If a chair stood in a certain corner it was because of reasons in the life of someone who had liked it that way. I would change it, of course, but what I added would only be part of a long continuity, and so it would have both a particular and a general value. If we had built it, it would certainly have been more comfortable, and perhaps even more beautiful, but I doubt it, and I should have missed this pleasure of stepping into a complete world. And there would have been no thrill of discovery. As it was, I ran from room to room, examining everything. I liked it all.

I admire how Perényi moves so assuredly from analysis into narration in that last sentence. I appreciate the self-assurance that’s gone into that off-handed but firm remark about putting her stamp on the place, “I would change it, of course.” And I love that she has the largeness of spirit to feel enriched rather than threatened by that sense of “long continuity.” She’s also a bit strange: is that bit about the cats dressed as Louis XIV a reference to a real tale? Either way, it’s wonderful that what she wants isn’t a prince but someone (or something) to wait on her. But what could make a worse servant than a cat? Even Perényi’s fantasies are unusual. That’s fitting though, for the period she’s living through, when dreams most often turned to nightmares. More Was Lost presents itself as slight, even whimsical, but as this passage clearly reveals, it’s anything but.

Perényi can be tart (the Czech trains, she tells us, were always dirty, “but I know enough not to associate clean trains with political freedom”). She can be reticent, which might seem counter intuitive in a memoir but which only makes us feel more strongly how personal this story is (writing of the restaurant in a rural train station, she says, “I had a special reason for liking this restaurant. We had been there often, and once, sitting at a corner table drinking coffee between trains, Zsiga had said the nicest thing he ever said to me. It doesn’t matter what it was.”) But mostly she can appreciate things, for in this world of continuity paradoxically nothing lasts. Everything has been overturned by the last war—Szöllös was looted three times—and will be overturned still further by the next.

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In the first half of the book Eleanor and Zsiga bring the estate back to life. Perényi was a wonderful gardener—much later in life she wrote a book about gardening that I gather is considered to be her masterpiece, though I can’t imagine how it could better this book—and we hear a lot about how she took the 10 acres of jardin anglais in hand. More pertinently, the gardener’s need to take the long view, her sense of time passing according to seasons rather than days or months, structures the first half of the book. Perényi referrs to passing seasons, uses phrases like “over time” and “eventually,” and generally marks time quite vaguely: “Once we had a sudden influx of visitors”; “In the summer the ripe eating grapes were packed outside the winehouse in the vineyard.” In this way, the narrative of the young American who learns to be a Baroness is continually eclipsed by a bigger story, which isn’t really a story at all, but rather a scenario or situation, about a house and the way of life supported by it. As much as I loved this section, I was kept off-balance—I kept wondering what year it was—and I fretted over the war that my knowledge of history and Perényi’s gentle foreshadowing told me was coming.

The war comes, of course. But first we follow Perényi as she gets the house into shape, learns passable Hungarian, navigates the Church, manages servants, pays calls on the local families, and, most charmingly, is invited for opulent house parties at the much more expansive estate of Zsiga’s cousin across the border in Hungary. (Count Laci is one of those larger than life characters it’s so delightful to delight in.) You can just imagine the terrible movie to be made from this book: plucky American gal becomes a Baroness, overcomes obstacles, wins the hearts of the locals, and lives happily ever after.

But More Was Lost never falls prey to cliché. Nor, alas, does it have a happy ending. The second half of the book is narrated more straightforwardly: story swallows up situation. Events begin with Britain and France’s refusal to support the Czechs when Hitler demands the Sudetenland. In the ensuing shakeup, Hungary gained back most of its lost territory, but not the land around Szöllös. That became part of a new and short-lived Ruthenian separatist state called Carpatho-Ukrainia which was quickly defeated by the Hungarians. (After the war, Szöllös became part of the Ukranian province of the Soviet Union—the estate was turned first into a museum and then into a school administration office, its furnishings and moldings stripped.) Hungary was an initially tacit and eventually (after 1940) official ally of the Germans. When Zsiga got his call up notice in 1939 he already knew it was likely he would have to fight in support of the Germans. For an avowed anti-fascist, this was intolerable. But Hungary was his country, and he loved it. What to do? In the midst of everything, Eleanor gets pregnant. Life continues somewhat normally for a few more months, and Eleanor enjoys one more spring on the estate. But when Germany invades Belgium in May 1940, it becomes clear that Sziga would have to fight. He urges her to return to America while she still can, and after some anguished uncertainty she does.

Perényi is convinced the absence will be relatively short and that she and Zsiga and the baby will be reunited after the war, but that’s not the way things turn out:

 When you leave a place you are never going to see again, you are supposed to have some sort of premonition. I have been mildly clairvoyant in my life, but not this time. I left as if I expected to be back the following week, straightening one of the little cherubs on each side of the clock, reminding Laci to throw out last month’s New Yorkers on the table by the porcelain stove, leaving the lid of the rosewood piano open… a hasty glance around the garden over which I had worked so hard… I didn’t pay any farewell calls. I didn’t go to take a last look at my trees in the orchard. I walked out with only one bag, got into the carriage to be driven to the station by Sandor as usual, and never looked back.

 *

I’m a sucker for stories of decaying, tragic Mitteleuropa; I’m really the ideal audience for this book. I could read about lavish hunting parties all day long, and I was fascinated by Perényi’s sympathetic portrayal of the local Jewish population. (Already in the 30s when Hungary introduced a looser version of the Nuremberg Laws, Eleanor and Zsiga helped a neighbouring Jewish landowner keep his property; later in the war Zsiga hid Jews on the estate and smuggled seed grain to help feed others in a nearby ghetto; some quick internet research tells me that it’s only about 40 miles from the estate to Sighet, the town from which a young Elie Wiesel was deported to Auschwitz.)

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But what I really love about this book, what sticks with me most, is Perényi herself. You can see again, in that passage of leavetaking, her matter of factness, her unwillingness to sentimentalize even this moment of great loss. And that’s only fitting because however much she loved Szöllös she loved Zsiga more, and—spoiler alert!—she loses him too, even though he survived the war. When he finally writes to her in the summer of 1945 she hasn’t heard from him in three and a half years. In that time of silence she worries less over whether he’s alive than what he might have been up to during the war. “He had always had a pessimism born of privation and failure,” she writes. Would he have supported the fascism he so detested because he felt the need to fight for Hungary? Would he have joined the Communist resistance even though his father detested Communism? She concludes, rather remarkably, I think:

I didn’t altogether trust him. I said to myself that he would never willingly have collaborated with the Germans, but on the other hand he might simply have failed to take any stand at all. Yes, I decided that that was probably what he had done. And I said too that I didn’t blame him for it, because the choice he faced was almost an impossible one to make…. But my motives were not all so high-minded, fair, or explainable. It was also true that by assuming he had chosen the safer curse, or no course at all, I spared myself the pan of worrying about him.

We already saw in the passage about fairy stories that Perényi is never as artless as we might expect her to be. I have to stop myself from calling this book “charming.” It’s almost charming—it’s almost a fairy story—but the sentiments in this passage aren’t charming. They’re heart-rending, not least because they’re a little cold, much harder on Perényi herself than on her husband or anyone else.

In the introduction to this reissue we learn what we don’t in the book itself: a year after its publication in 1946, Zsiga came to New York and lived with Perényi and their child for several months. But it didn’t work out. They couldn’t overcome the past, the differences in their lives. He didn’t want to live in the US and she didn’t want to go back to Europe. He died in 1965, shortly after his second wife. Heartbreakingly, it is said he always kept his copy of the book with him. Perényi herself never talked about what happened between them. She kept his name, though. But maybe that’s just what people did then. Amazingly, everyone in the book survives the war. But they don’t live happily ever after, at least not the way they thought they would.

More Was Lost is another example of what New York Review Books does best: bring you books you didn’t know how much you needed. How lovely that More Was Lost is lost no more.