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 about Eline”: Louis Couperus’s Eline Vere

Eline Vere (1889) is the best book I’ve read this year, would undoubtedly be one of the best books in almost any year. It’s the first novel by Dutch novelist Louis Couperus (1863-1923). I fancy myself pretty well read in European literature since 1800, I mean, nothing like some people, but more than many. But I had never heard of this book, though I gather it is a great classic of Dutch literature, until I read about it on this terrific list. (As it happens I have those books by Prus, Eça de Queirós, and Der Nister in hand and somehow need to make time for them.) If you like sweeping books about a richly appointed bourgeois world, with a generous but unobtrusive narrator, and just enough asperity to balance a tendency to effusiveness, you’re going to love this book.

It captivated me over a long weekend at one of my very favourite reading places of all, my in-laws’ farm in rural Missouri, where there is a really excellent porch swing and all manner of birds and animals to look at when you’re tired and need to raise your eyes from the page.

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The scene is The Hague in the late-nineteenth century. The characters belong to the interrelated wealthy families who run the place, or who have enough money that they don’t need to work. They’re not that rich, though, the possibility that the money is going to run out is a worry for many of them, as is the sense, as befits this buttoned-down Protestant milieu, that the men, at least, ought to work regardless of financial need, out of a moral duty to lead society.

The book’s question, then, is: what makes a meaningful life? And in the great 19th century realist tradition, that question is much more difficult and fascinating for women. What do they live for, if not work? Marriage and family are two obvious answers, satisfying for some of the female characters. But not for all, certainly not for the protagonist, Eline.

Eline Vere gets compared to Madame Bovary, Anna Karenina, and Effi Briest. The reason is obvious: all are novels centered on eponymous heroines who are drawn to men who aren’t their husbands as a way to overcome their boredom and uncertain place in society. I’ve not read Effi Briest—I can already hear Tom telling me I have to rectify that oversight, and I mean to—but I didn’t find Eline Vere as much like those books as blurb writers would have us believe.

For Eline’s dissatisfaction doesn’t find a sexual outlet. She’s not even married, so adultery doesn’t even come into it. In some sense, the book is a long search for the right man for Eline. It seems, halfway through, that she’s found him, an eminently suitable, kind, dutiful, all-around stand-up guy named Otto van Erlevoort. They get engaged, despite his family’s initial reservations—Eline somehow seems so different from them. Otto’s sister never overcomes these reservations: “I know she’s beautiful and charming, but there’s something about her that, well, that I find unsympathetic… She doesn’t have a heart, all she has is egotism, stone-cold egotism.” Later, the sister’s sister-in-law adds similar misgivings: “There’s something about Eline that makes me think she might not fit in very well with the rest of the family. She adapts herself, certainly, but I’m not sure she does so with all her heart.” Note the motif of the heart, or, rather, heartlessness. Having a heart seems here to mean caring for others. But it also seems to mean playing a part, going along with appearances, fitting in with others. The heart is a sign of both authenticity and falsity. Small wonder, then, that the book opens at a party in which the youngsters of the Dutch beau monde organize extravagant dramatic tableau. Eline, who at age 23 is or could be part of that set, is notably absent. (It’s a classic dramatic set-up: as various characters ask each other where Eline is, we get more and more intrigued about her.)

So sure was I that Eline’s travails had to play out in a love affair that I spent the first half of the book wondering who she would fall in love with, and in what way that love would be inappropriate or scandalous. The first candidate is an opera singer who takes The Hague by storm and who Eline is obsessed with for a while, secretly buying pictures of him and stalking him in the park where he takes a walk most days. But she never even speaks to him and before long throws over the infatuation as silly. Then I thought the trouble might be with her brother-in-law, Henk, who obviously adores her and who she seems to like a lot too. (After the death of her mother, Eline lives with her sister, the much more pragmatic Betsy, and Henk and their children.) But Henk is like the faithful Newfoundland dog he’s compared to early on and really only wants everyone he knows, especially his wife and her sister, to get along, so that he can be left in peace to go riding and shooting. He’s a tenderly imagined version of Charles Bovary, though rather more competent. Then Otto comes along and Eline gets engaged to him and it all seems so promising.

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There’s an absolutely wonderful set piece—Couperus is almost as good as Tolstoy when it comes to set pieces—at the Van Erlevoorts’ summer home, De Horze, complete with lovely meals and long days with seemingly endlessly lengthening shadows on the evening lawn and children rushing around underfoot and inventing games. I’m absolutely a sucker for this stuff, and Couperus lays it on thick. But he does so only to insist that idyll can’t last. At almost the exact halfway point of the book, at the end of the De Horze chapter, at the end of the summer, we find this meditation on self-sabotage and the loss of happiness:

[Eline] opened the window and looked outside. The rain had stopped and the air was fragrant with moist foliage. The sky was clear, wiped clean of leaden clouds but for some lingering streaks, from which rose a brilliant crescent moon. The far-flung fields lay muffled in silence; a lone windmill held aloft a dark motionless sail, starkly defined against the pale sheen of the evening sky. The ditches glittered like strips of metal, and a scented freshness emanated like a gentle sigh from the slumbering landscape. Eline leant out of the window, hugging her bare arms. She felt as if that soft sigh of freshness had sweetened all her thoughts with the fragrance of wild flowers, banishing the stale, sickly smell of her former state of mind. It was like inhaling the heady perfume of musk and opopanax, and she felt very young, younger than she had ever felt before, and oh!—of this she was certain—never had she been in love as she was now, never! Her Otto! Thinking of him she felt no need whatsoever to conjure up some idealised image of him; she thought of him as he was, manly and strong in his good-natured simplicity, with one single thought governing his mind: the thought of her. His love was so rich, so full, so all-encompassing. And hers was growing by the day, she believed … no it couldn’t grow any further, that would be impossible! No further wishes, no concerns about the future; it would unfold of its own accord, a perspective tinged with a golden glow! Nothing but the stillness of that lake into which her soul had glided, nothing but the peace and love of that blue ecstasy! Nothing but that … She could not imagine what more a human being could wish for.

Only, there was one tiny blemish in all that clear expanse of blue, an inkling of fear that change might yet come! It was so very long since she had prayed, and she was unsure how to go about it, whether she should say the words aloud or just think them. Indeed, she no longer knew whether she believed in God, she no longer knew what she believed, but now, at this moment, she dearly wished to pray that it might remain as it was now, that nothing would ever change—oh, for that gentle happiness, that tranquility of mind, that blue to remain with her for ever!

“Never again as it was, please God; make everything stay the same as it is now! I’ll die if anything changes!” she whispered under her breath, and as she folded her hands in prayer, a teardrop quivered on her lashes. But it was a tear of joy, and in her joy that tiny fear drowned like a drop in the ocean.

But of course it doesn’t. The fear grows to unmanageable proportions. You can see from this passage that Couperus stays close to Eline perspective, and so that the conventionality or melodramatic extravagance of some of the prose (“nothing but the peace and love of that blue ecstasy”) is the character’s. (He also moves us from character to character—we aren’t constrained to Eline’s perspective, which allows us to see, for example, how frustrating Eline can be at times, especially in the only strand of the story that includes characters from a different social strata, a young couple and their children named the Ferelijns, who have settled in Java and only returned to Holland temporarily due to the husband’s ill health. Eline, who went to school with the wife, veers between sensitivity and obliviousness about their quite precarious financial situation.)

Eline’s life unravels because she can’t imagine herself to be happy, because part of her doesn’t want to be happy, and because she can’t wholeheartedly accept what the rest of the characters call happiness. Eline is a confusing but compelling mixture of fatalism, congenital, even hereditary dissatisfaction, and self-awareness. The hereditary part—Couperus is like a less-militant Zola at times—comes to the fore when Eline and Betsy’s cousin, Vincent—decadent, a bit louche, a debtor (the worst thing you can be in this social world), a dabbler in Nietzsche—comes to visit.

Betsy hates him; Eline adores him; she almost falls in love with him, but their relationship is weirder than that, and besides the genuinely egotistical and probably gay Vincent doesn’t care about her. (Vincent is saved by a rich American friend, a man named St Clare, an enigmatic figure who has wandered in from a James novel. To make things even more complicated he almost has a thing with Eline.) Something about Vincent makes Eline unable to love Otto, or, rather, confirms for her that a life with Otto isn’t possible. Betsy exults when she can finally kick Vincent out of the house; Eline publicly berates her for her unkindness. This rupture leads to an extraordinary scene–another one of those set pieces–in which Eline leaves Betsy’s home in the middle of the night, in the midst of an enormous and terrifying storm. It’s cheesy in my telling but absolutely riveting in Couperus’s.

The book Eline Vere did remind me of is Buddenbrooks, though I haven’t read it in about 25 years, so I may be overstating the similarities. They share a Northern European, Protestant, bourgeois setting and a belief in hereditary decline. What Mann’s novel has that Couperus’s doesn’t is a belief in art as a kind of safety valve. Yes, the generations become more effete as they move away from business, but at least they gain in sensitivity and artistic refinement.

Eline too is drawn to art. She is a passable pianist and her voice is quite good, but she never keeps up with her lessons, and besides as her health gets worse her doctors forbid her from practicing. First love fails Eline, then art. Without those things, what can a woman of this time turn to?

isaac_israels_girl_reading_on_a_sofa_d5827283h

Eline did for a time love Otto; I don’t think we’re supposed to believe otherwise. But as the book goes on it seems that Eline doesn’t really love anyone—not because she’s as selfish as others think she is, but because she doesn’t want to, or, at least, know how to. She increasingly finds herself unworthy, and she has an extraordinary way of evading or upending any situation that others create to make her happy, often by making herself so unpleasant that she drives people away. The end offers one of the more subtle portraits of madness in 19th century literature (and that’s saying something, there’s madness all over the place there).

We see Eline unable to sleep, increasingly delirious, and we follow the restless zigzag of her thoughts: first desperately trying to hold on a love she can no longer feel, then despairing over her inability to force herself to keep loving Otto, and finally raging over her situation, “because she was being assailed by thoughts she did not wish to think at all, and because she felt herself too weak to turn around and fight those invisible forces.”

Couperus doesn’t judge his characters—he’s no Flaubert—valuing this closely-knit society with its demonic fascination with duty even as he shows it to be narrow and conventional and totally unable to know what to do with Eline. But he makes Eline off-putting enough that we can’t totally sympathize with her, even though we ultimately must pity what today we might call the manic-depressive demons that surge through her.

I’m not sure how well I’ve conveyed this book to you. What I most want you to know is that it’s stranger than it seems. Its gilded, cozy, and upright surfaces—if you’re at all susceptible to gemütlichkeit you’ll love this book—contain unsettling depths. But the depths aren’t appealing enough to allow us to dismiss the surfaces as mere conventionality. Above all, I hope I’ve made this book intriguing enough that you’ll want to read it and talk about it with me.

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Thanks must go to Archipelago Books for their lovely edition, with its generous margins, thick paper, clear font, the whole pleasing heft and size of the book itself. No doubt I would have appreciated some parts of the story even more had the book come with notes or introduction. Definitely a list of characters or family tree would have been helpful. But in the end I enjoyed the book all the more because I just had to plunge in and make my own way through it. (Actually, there’s an afterword by someone named Paul Binding and as I recall it’s quite good, more appreciative than academic.) Yes, sometimes I had a hard time keeping the characters straight, but Eline Vere gave me what I too seldom get when reading these days and what I long for more than anything else: a deep sense of immersion, a wish to be alone with the book and to keep the pages turning. The novel’s 500 pages, but twice as long would have been just fine with me. Ina Rilke’s translation seems excellent. I mean it as a tribute to her when I say that I often found myself thinking, Well, I can read German, surely Dutch isn’t that different, I bet I could read this book in the original! Rilke’s supple English—neither fussy nor anachronistic, neither old-fashioned nor contemporary—made me believe in such a fantasy. I’m keen to read more of her translations from the Dutch. And I’m even keener to read more Couperus. A few of his books are available but as best I can tell his masterpiece Old People and Things That Pass (1918) is not. Archipelago, or other brave publishers, I beg you: please, please, please, more Couperus.