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.

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“Something Which Bites or Stings”: Irmgard Keun’s After Midnight

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Irmgard Keun’s After Midnight was published in Holland in 1937, the year after she left her native Germany. As Geoff Wilkes writes in his informative afterword to this newish edition—well, maybe not so new, it was published five years ago—Keun’s relatively late departure meant that she had experienced National Socialist Germany more fully than those émigrés who left shortly after 1933.

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For the opening scene Keun drew on her experience of Hitler’s visit to Frankfurt on May 19, 1935, where she was living at the time. Sanna Moder, the novel’s nineteen-year-old narrator, is trying to return to her brother’s apartment with her friend Gerti when the SS block off the streets in order that the Führer and other Nazi bigwigs might more easily reach the opera.

The friends don’t care about the officials; they’ve got other things on their minds. Sanna has finally had a letter from her boyfriend in Köln after a silence of several months. Gerti’s family wants her to marry Kurt, a member of the SA, the paramilitary group that helped bring Hitler to power, but she’s in love with Dieter, who, as a Jew, is “what they call a person of mixed race, first class or maybe third class—I can never get the hang of these labels.”

What seems like blithe insouciance can be read as sly critique. Sanna—it’s short for Susanna—seems clueless, and it’s true that the most important thing on her mind is a party her sister-in-law wants her to help plan. Gerti by contrast seems much more politically conscious, coolly snubbing the attentions of some SS men by pretending to be Jewish. But Sanna is keenly aware of how much Gerti risks in such moments. Similarly, stringing Kurt along so that she can continue to see Dieter is a dangerous game.

But the longer we spend with Sanna, the more her ingenuousness starts to seem like a strategy to undermine fascism’s fathomless self-regard. Here she is, for example, standing in the crowds who have gathered to see the Führer but who must content themselves with a sighting of Göring, recognizable to all by his fancy suits:

[W]e all know from photographs that he likes to wear stylish suits. Though by now he’s really so well known he doesn’t need to make his mark by wearing striking clothes. … Then again, however, even established film stars can never let up—they have to keep showing their public the latest thing in fashion and elegance. I expect someone like Göring is obliged to think hard all the time, if he’s going to keep offering the German public something new. And men like that have to find time to govern the country as well. Take the Führer: he devotes almost his entire life to being photographed for his people. Just imagine, what an achievement! Having your picture taken the whole time with children and pet dogs, indoors and out of doors—never any rest. And constantly going about in aeroplanes, or sitting through long Wagner operas, because that’s German art, and he sacrifices himself for German art as well.

This is wonderful, especially, to me at any rate, that parenthetical description of the pictures Hitler has to take “indoors and out of doors”—I don’t know why that makes me laugh so much, but it does. And then of course there is the joke about Wagner—more obvious, maybe, but it comes with a sting, in its criticism of the idea of German (healthy) art as opposed to the degenerate art created by so many of Keun’s circle.

Keun had already perfected her use of the faux-naïve female narrator in her second novel, The Artificial Silk Girl (1932). It’s a wonderful book, you should absolutely read it, it reminds me of Anita Loos’s Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, but the targets (big city sophisticates) are less dangerous, less necessary than those in After Midnight. The passage about Göring and Hitler is so brilliant because Sanna does sort of believe what she’s saying (she really does start out rather naïve, though she doesn’ end that way: even though the main action of the novel takes place only over two nights, Sanna ages a lot over the course of the book). Yet her reflections aren’t simply artless or simplistic. She shrewdly diagnoses fascism’s love of spectacle, and the energy it devotes to what is in some sense an endless publicity campaign for itself.

Keun suggests Sanna is able to see through appearances precisely because she is so attuned to them. Here she is describing a woman so desperate for a fox fur that she condescends to buy one from a Jewish furrier, a secret she must hide from fellow party members at all costs: “When she wears it, they look like a rich fur taking a poor woman for a walk.” At times like this, Sanna reminded me of the heroines of Jean Rhys’s novels, though Sanna has better luck than they do. Yet Rhys shares with Keun her belief in the observational power of otherwise disempowered, marginalized young women.

Whatever seems blithe, even careless in Sanna’s narration reveals itself as sly, even cutting. Indeed, she is more effective than more established critics of the regime, such as her stepbrother Algin, a once famous but now blacklisted writer who considers writing an epic poem extolling Hitler in order to get back into the regime’s good graces, or the journalist Heini, who “hardly writes at all these days—for political reasons again,” and whose only resistance now comes from introducing virulent anti-Semites to Jews without their knowing, then delighting after the fact in how readily they had become chummy with someone they purport to hate, a dismayingly risky tactic that might explain why he is so filled with self-loathing.

In a climactic speech, Heini explains that he “can’t be a witty and humorous journalist in this country or anywhere else with screams from German concentration camps in your ears.” Keun admires Heini but she doesn’t like him. Her novel imagines less official or perhaps officious or at any rate less male forms of resistance. But Heini isn’t entirely disparaged. His concluding peroration ends with some resonant sentences distinguishing today’s émigrés from those of previous generations:

It’s different today. You’re a poor emigrant. You’ll find any other country is smooth and hard as a chestnut shell. You become a trial to yourself and a burden on others. For the roofs that you see are not built for you. The bread that you smell is not baked for you. And the language that you hear is not spoken for you.

At the end of the book Sanna’s lover, Franz, finds her after several months of silence. It turns out he has been locked up by the Gestapo after having been informed on by a disgruntled neighbour. After his release he murders the man and is now on the run from the police; the end of the novel finds the couple on a train heading for the border, hoping to make it out of the country. Although sobered by recent dramatic events, Sanna once again finds herself inhabiting a position of strategic subordination that seems to be women’s lot in the novel: “My head is in Franz’s lap. I must seem to be weaker than I am, so that he can feel strong, and love me.” Shortly after this statement, the novel repeats Heini’s words:

 “The roofs that you see are not built for you. The bread that you smell is not baked for you. And the language that you hear is not spoken for you.”

The sentences are presented in quotation marks, but it’s unclear who says them. Does Sanna relate them to Franz? Or is she saying them to herself? But the previous line—“It will be all right, Franz, I am happy, we’re safe, we will live”—is not quoted, which suggests Sanna isn’t simply repeating Heini’s words to herself. It’s as if the words are coming from the text itself, from some position greater than Sanna’s. Are we to take the peculiar, unanchored appearance of Heini’s speech as a refutation of his prediction? In other words, is it a sign that the lovers will get away? Or is it a confirmation that they won’t?

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Maybe it’s none of these things. Maybe it’s a statement of Sanna’s predicament: to live in a world that doesn’t always take her seriously. “The language that you hear is not spoken for you”: that could be a description of the way Sanna is always threatened to be sidelined or disparaged. And yet of course she is the one in this novel who wields language so wittily and compellingly. In this sense, Keun argues that readers shouldn’t join in the cultural tendency to dismiss young women like Sanna (or indeed, like herself—she was only 32 when After Midnight was published). For in voices like Sanna’s we might find a resistance to authoritarianism worthy of the name.

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After Midnight is translated by Anthea Bell. She’s kept that vivid voice of Sanna’s that is so vital to the novel’s success. Yet I did wonder at some of her choices. Here’s the novel’s opening paragraph, in the original and then in Bell’s translation:

Einen Briefumschlag macht man auf und zieht etwas heraus, das beisst oder sticht, obwohl es kein Tier ist. Heute kam so ein Brief von Franz. “Liebe Sanna”, schreibt er mir, “ich möchte Dich noch einmal sehen, darum komme ich viellercht. Ich konnte Dir lange nicht schreiben, aber ich habe oft an Dich gedacht, das hast Du sicher gewusst und gefühlt. Hoffentlich geht es Dir gut. Viele herzliche Grüsse, meine liebe Sanna. Dein Franz.”

You can open an envelope and take out something which bites or stings, though it isn’t a living creature. I had a letter like that from Franz today. “Dear Sanna,” he writes, “I want to see you again, so I may be coming to Frankfurt. I haven’t been able to write for some time, but I’ve been thinking about you a lot. I’m sure you knew that, I’m sure you could feel it. All my love, dear Sanna, from Franz.”

Already in the first sentence, Keun indicates that this text will bite. But why does Bell say “living creature” rather than the more fitting “animal” or “beast”? And why does she use a modal auxiliary (can) to make this conditional when the original presents this as something that simply or always happens? Throughout we find subtle additions and elisions. Why does Bell add Sanna’s location? (Keun doesn’t mention Frankfurt.) Are English-language readers so unable to have their understanding deferred? And since she proves herself (rightly) willing to break English syntax and embrace comma splices, why does she break the long sentence starting “Ich konnte Dir lange nicht schreiben” in two, and, in so doing, to add a parallelism (“I’m sure you”) that isn’t there in the original? Lastly, why does she cut an entire sentence? (Before his salutation, Franz says, “I hope you are well.”).

I’m no translator, and Bell probably has good reasons for her choices. What’s more, his translation reads so smoothly and supplely that I was surprised, turning to the German, to see the alterations he’d made. But maybe that’s the point—to write something that sounds great in translation maybe you need a strong editorial hand. Anyone have thoughts on this?

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I started reading Irmgard Keun’s After Midnight the weekend before the US Presidential election: the book felt cautionary. I had to set it aside and couldn’t come back to it until the weekend after: now the book felt urgent. These are dangerous times. We need all the stories of resistance to power that we can get.

I wrote this review as part of German Literature Month, hosted by Caroline and Lizzy. There are many wonderful posts to read across the blogosphere.