Review of the year: 2016 in reading (part 1)

I read 39 books in 2016. That’s less than some years, but not my worst ever. It might have been my worst year for some time in recording my reading, though: I didn’t keep a decent list as I was going along and had to reconstruct one from various notebooks and my own bookshelves.

I read 14 books by men; 24 by women; and the correspondence of Ingeborg Bachmann and Paul Celan. I guess about 7 of those books are by people of colour. It’s probably good to at least be aware of those numbers.

It was a good year for poetry, particularly poetry by women: a third of my reading was slim volumes of verse, as well as several books by and about poets: the Bachmann/Celan letters; the second part of Langston Hughes’ autobiography; a terrific collection of essays on, among other things, poetry and feminism by Adrienne Rich; and an enjoyable, if slightly inexplicable sort-of biography of a very short period in the life of Sylvia Plath. But one reason that it’s been a good year for poetry is, I think, because my attention span is completely shot: I’ve barely read anything which required concentration for long periods, and at times like these I come back to poetry. (I started reading poetry when I as doing my GCSEs and my mother, trying to hep me revise rather than bury myself in novels, suggested that poetry was much better than fiction as it was much more put-down-able. I’m not sure that’s the right way to describe it, but it’s true that I find poetry much easier to read – and finish! – despite my attention span being currently shorter than it ever has been.)

Standout books: going through the list chronologically, the first book of the year, Invisible Cities, was probably also the most delightful. I first read Calvino years and years ago and ruined If on a winter’s night a traveller for myself by taking it terribly, terribly seriously: but Calvino is the best kind of writer, a serious writer who you can take lightly (the worst is the frivolous writer who insists you take him (probably him) seriously). Invisible Cities, in which the explorer Marco Polo describes all the cities he has known to the Chinese ruler Kubla Khan, is enchanting and funny and poetic and everyone should read it. My favourite invisible city was Armilla, in which the city is constructed purely of plumbing, where

Against the sky a lavabo’s white stands out, or a bathtub, or some other porcelain, like late fruit still hanging from the boughs.

Maybe just because I love baths too and identify with the naiads and nymphs, who:

Accustomed to travelling along underground veins, […] found it easy to enter into the new aquatic realm, to burst from multiple fountains, to find new mirrors, new games, new ways of enjoying the water.

Anyway after that I reread If on a winter’s night a traveller  and enjoyed it much, much more, which just goes to show that one must never take a book out of its correct time (my reading motto).

The story of the lost child brought the Ferrante quartet to an end: possibly the best books I have read in the last few years. I’ve read a lot of feminist (or do I mean “feminist”?) novels over the years and started to make a division in my mind between the realist feminist novelists, mostly American and British, and white, who tend towards a recognisable account of the oppression undergone by women, in which cause and effect are unshadowed and power relations are clear; and the psychological feminist novelists (Jelinek, Bachmann, Lispector) who write about women on the edge, women in breakdown, women behaving irrationally, and have a lot more to say to the continental feminism which examines language and  rationality. It’s a crude, probably unfair, distinction which doesn’t hold up to deep examination (there are dozens of exceptions: Doris Lessing, Jean Rhys, Christa Wolf), but I’ve always found the second kind more interesting but the first kind more straightforwardly satisfying. I loved the Ferrante quartet for being both at once: because the book examines the lives of two very different women over such a long period and does not shy away from the historical and political context, it seems to bring together reflections on speech and madness and the alienation of women from the lives they are expected to live with quite a materialist analysis of some of the problems women face in trying to live the lives they may want to live. I also loved reading a series of books in which the most important, foregrounded, definitive relationship was the friendship between two women: it’s so rare for female friendship to have the centre stage, and particularly for that friendship to be considered across the decades, rather than (in particular) being confined to early adulthood.

By contrast Camille Laurens’ novel Dans ces bras-là describes a woman’s life through the relationships she has with men: her father, her teachers, her boyfriends, her husband. The novel starts as the narrator sits in a café and spots a man passing by who she immediately decides is the one for her; after following him to his offices, she eventually discovers that he is a psychoanalyst (this is a very French French novel) and signs up for analysis with him. The chapters describing the men she has known and her relationships with them alternate with the conversations she has with her new analyst about herself and her recently ended marriage. I thought this was clever and profound: the sense of recurrence and repeating patterns in relationships, ow every relationship is formed by the one before. It was also very funny about the awfulness of men.

I haven’t  yet read the first volume, but the second volume of Langston Hughes’ autobiography, I wonder as I wander was one of the most enjoyable books I read this year, primarily because Hughes is such a delightful companion. The book is divided into Hughes’ travels around the US in the 1930s and his journey across the (still very young) USSR, where he ends up with a troupe of Black American actors, and whether it is Jim Crow or the bureaucratic tyrannies of the Soviet system he manages to find both the humour and the humanity in any situation. I really enjoyed his travels across the Soviet ‘Stans with Arthur Koestler: Koestler finds the dirt and backwardness of the central Asian states repulsive, and keeps repeating in disgust ‘What a place to have a revolution!’ but Langston makes all sorts of unusual friends – as well as observing how recently a Jim Crow-type distinction had been drawn between ‘Europeans’ and others in the pre-Soviet Central Asian states.

In part 2 I’ll write about the stand-out poetry I read this year.

 

Don’t tell ME to be positive: John McDonnell and hard Brexit

John McDonnell’s speech on hard Brexit (also reported here) is a pointless, stupid and destructive approach to the unquestionably difficult issue of what Labour’s policy should be on Brexit.

Yes, a majority of voters were in favour of leaving the European Union, as the question on the ballot paper put it. The people have spoken, but that is all we know about what they have said. The ballot paper didn’t ask about immigration, the single market, the Eurozone, the ECHR, the NHS, Greece, the refugee crisis, or any of the myriad other issues around which both right and left Brexiters campaigned.

I don’t support a second referendum at this stage (although as with the referendum on Scottish independence, it would seem reasonable to hold another if it became apparent that a significant proportion of voters had changed their position). Nor do I agree with those who would like to split hairs and ignore the referendum result on the basis that it was purely advisory: to do so would show a contempt for the democratic process which would deepen the already existing social and political fault lines in this country.

But refusing to countenance challenging or delaying the Article 50 process in Parliament seems absolutely wrong-headed. The government is clearly floundering and divided, and its majority of 12 is almost certainly less than the number of pro-Europe Tories who might be equally keen to refuse or delay Parliamentary approval for Article 50 unless a clear plan is put forward which aims at keeping the UK in the single market.

Single market membership would include continued free movement of people, in my opinion the first battleground for the left in trying to mitigate the effects of Brexit. It’s deeply disappointing that the noises on free movement and immigration which are coming from the Labour party leadership and others such as Len McCluskey, mixed and contradictory as they are, seem to be conceding to the racist anti-immigration, anti-free movement narrative which gave the victory to the Brexit campaign in the first place.

I voted for Jeremy Corbyn (twice) at least in part because I was disgusted by the weakness of the Labour party under Blair, Brown and Miliband in challenging the anti-immigration narrative over the last twenty years. Every Labour politician who has uttered the weasel words “very real concerns” – rather than pointing out the fact that immigration is an economic benefit – has to accept that they share some responsibility for the leave vote.

Corbyn and McDonnell should be proud of their record opposing racism and defending the rights of migrant workers, but this week’s inept triangulation – in which the policy direction is correct, but the headlines proclaim that freedom of movement “has not worked” is not the way to go. It’s heading down the path which leads to Rachel Reeves’ disgraceful Enoch Powell tribute act at this year’s Labour party conference.

Perhaps Corbyn and McDonnell feel uncomfortable about forming alliances with Tories and Lib Dems. Perhaps they’re concerned about the electoral threat from UKIP. Tough. The priority now must be the defence of free movement of people (as a limited counterbalance to the free movement of capital) and protection of the rights of EU citizens and other immigrants who have chosen to make this country their home. If that means talking to the likes of George Osborne and Nick Clegg, it’s worth it to hold Boris Johnson and Liam Fox’s feet to the fire.

I didn’t want this referendum or think it was necessary. Like most of the British left, I voted to stay in the EU not out of any great love for that institution but from a revulsion against the forces I felt would benefit most from a Leave victory. The analysis that the populist and fascist right would reap the benefits of a Leave victory is being confirmed every day. But that does not mean that there isn’t everything to be fought for.

I don’t usually engage in politics via extended Facebook rant, but this has made me very very angry. Practical suggestions in the comments about what Labour party members can do to stop John McDonnell’s ideas becoming Labour’s Brexit policy, and what the left can do more generally to defend migrant rights and the freedom of movement, and to resist the international rise of the far right, would be very welcome.

The beauty of the husband – Anne Carson

My first encounter with Anne Carson’s poetry was with her poem Hero (from Glass and God) anthologised in a collection of women’s poetry (I’ve tried to track down which, but can’t for the life of me find it; all I know is I copied Hero into my commonplace book of poems some time between 1999 and 2004). At the time I was struck with the smartness and wit of it, and the references to Emily Brontë; but also with the way it captured some of what I was feeling at the time about my then-difficult relationship with my mother:

I can tell by the way my mother chews her toast
whether she had a good night
and is about to say a happy thing
or not.

Not.

Now I read it and recognise my mother’s still-difficult relationship with her mother too. But the poem stuck with me for the way that the rhythm of the poem takes seemingly ordinary conversation, puts it into (mostly) three-line stanzas and gives it a pulling, pushing rhythm which underscores the tension between the mother and her daughter:

You’re saying women deserve to get raped
because Sears bathing suit ads
have high-cut legs? Ma, are you serious?

Well someone has to be responsible.
Why should women be responsible for male desire? My voice is high.
Oh I see you’re one of Them.

One of Whom? My voice is very high. Mother vaults it.

Mothers and daughters then; I suppose it makes sense that now, after a couple of failed relationships, I should be intensely struck by The beauty of the husband, a poetry sequence following a marriage from its beginning to its end. I started reading it in the Tube home after buying it and didn’t put it down until I’d finished it, captivated by the way that Carson’s smart tricksiness sifts through the story of the marriage, separating whatever in it was beautiful and true from the repeated failings and dishonesties of the husband.

The book is blurbed (blurbs itself?) as “an essay on Keats’s idea that beauty is truth, and is also the story of a marriage. It is told in 29 tangos. A tango (like a marriage) is something you have to dance to the end.” I said tricksy. But never so tricksy as to stop being enjoyable: the tone of the book is one I associate with late-night conversations with my sisters and my close women friends: a sometimes painful emotional honesty, but one which is salted with a cynical, or at least smart-assed and humourous understanding of how we got into these disastrous, ridiculous romantic entanglements, and the impossibility of getting out again.

Each tango is prefaced by an epitaph from Keats – including academic jokes (tango 15’s epitaph: 151 She] written over {He} KRD) – and titled in a sequence of titles which follow on from one another (title of tango 1: I DEDICATE THIS BOOK  TO KEATS (IS IT YOU WHO TOLD ME KEATS WAS A DOCTOR?) ON GROUNDS THAT A DEDICATION HAS TO BE FLAWED IF  A BOOK IS TO REMAIN FREE AND FOR HIS GENERAL SURRENDER TO BEAUTY. Title of tango 2: BUT A DEDICATION IS ONLY FELICITOUS IF PERFORMED BEFORE WITNESSES – IT IS AN ESSENTIALLY PUBLIC SURRENDER LIKE THAT OF STANDARDS OF BATTLE).

As the long discursive titles follow each other, making a sequence of their own, the poems follow the marriage through, from the wife looking back in middle age over the whole marriage:

Loyal to nothing
my husband. So why did I love him from early girlhood to late middle age
and the divorce decree came in the mail?
Beauty. No great secret. Not ashamed to say I loved him for his beauty.
As I would again
if he came near. Beauty convinces. You know beauty makes sex possible.
Beauty makes sex sex.

The alternation of long and short lines gives that superb rhythm and energy to the dialogue, I suppose like the tango itself, which I was taught at school goes: slow, slow, quick-quick, slow. Tango 19 strips the poem back to dialogue alone, pared down to a Beckett-like simplicity:

You live a counterfeit life.
Yes yes but for you.
Me.
These are my trophies my campaigns my honors I lay them before you.
The women.
Yes.
The lying.
Yes.
The shame.
No there is no shame.
The shame I feel.

But the narrator’s never not able to see both the pain and the ironies of the situation: her husband’s admission to her that he has a mistress in tango 3 causes her to quote to us Mr Rochester, of all people, on the evils of jealousy (I’ve left it as an image as I don’t want to keep copying out massive chunks of text, and that section repays a long quote):

beauty of the husband

I love that. I love the combination of raw emotion (Clothed in flames and rolling through the sky) and the woman who can still ironically quote literature’s most famous would-be bigamist on the question of jealousy. Love may make fools of us all, but there’s a difference between a fool and an idiot, and a fool is still capable of seeing how ridiculous her situation is, of recognising that her beloved is a coward, a bully, a liar, and being able to laugh at – or at least see the funny side of – his betrayals even while she can’t see her way out of the situation. I wrote of conversations with my sister: this is our tone, the one that women have with each other when men aren’t there, the one that turns sentences like “Well, I hope she’ll be very happy” or “How kind of him to say that” into black jokes that make us collapse with laughter.

The last poetry book which struck me so deeply was another narrative sequence, also following a relationship from its very beginning to its end. Also, now I think of it, with a little bit of tricksiness of structure and a richness of allusion and reference: it was Ciaran Carson’s For all we know, which I might try to write about at some point. (Also, of course, by another poet named Carson, but I don’t think that signifies.)

Letter

I wrote to the Guardian last week after they published the terrible photos of the little Syrian boy Aylan Kurdi following his death by drowning while trying to travel with his family to Europe:

Letter to Guardian

You can read the other letters on the same subject here and you can read the John Berger article I quote from here (pdf)

They were counted – Miklós Bánffy

You have too many haunting, elegiac novels, said my boyfriend peevishly, peering at my bookshelves. This is undoubtedly true, if it can be true that one can have ‘too many’ of any kind of book. I prefer to think that one can only have not enough. Or, perhaps, the right amount… eventually.

Anyway, I am a sucker for haunting and elegiac, and for mittel-Europe before the First World War, so I picked up Miklós Bánffy’s The Writing on the Wall,  a trilogy of Big Novels by a Hungarian aristocrat about the end of the Austro-Hungarian empire: They were counted, They were found wanting, They were divided. The titles come from the Bible, in the book of Daniel, when the hand of God writes in warning on the wall at Belshazzar’s feast:

24 Then was the part of the hand sent from him; and this writing was written.

25 And this is the writing that was written, Mene, Mene, Tekel, Upharsin.

26 This is the interpretation of the thing: Mene; God hath numbered thy kingdom, and finished it.

27 Tekel; Thou art weighed in the balances, and art found wanting.

28 Peres; Thy kingdom is divided, and given to the Medes and Persians.

The first novel follows the young aristocrat and politician, Count Balint Abady, and his feckless musician cousin Laszlo Gyeroffy. Abady is in love with a married woman, Adrienne; Laszlo with his childhood sweetheart, Klara. The two men are set against each other: Abady the sensible, thoughtful, honourable (and rather dull) nobleman, who wins, if only briefly Adrienne’s love through his care and thoughfulness; Laszlo the dashing musician who becomes a social success through his sangfroid at the baccarat table, but loses the love of his life because he cannot break his addiction to gambling.

This was a lovely, if lengthy, novel to read over Christmas; the descriptions of pre-1914 Hungary are luscious: the all-night balls, card games, romantic intrigues and duels are gorgeous and glamorous. Some moments are gorgeously vivid; when Abady goes to meet Adrienne to skate on the frozen lake, then, catching a glimpse of her from far away, cannot bring himself to approach her any more closely:

The frozen lake was surrounded by a railing over which hung a few lighted lanterns. He bought his ticket and entered the enclosure. There were only few people there apart from one or two beginners who were practising with wicker chairs to hold them up… but he could see Adrienne and the two young men gliding about on the far side of the lake. One of them had paid a man with a barrel organ to play to them and he was grinding out an ancient waltz wihich had once been the rage of Vienna. On it went, the tune endlessly repeating ‘Nur… für Natur… hegte Sie… Sympathie…’, and to this old melody they waltzed in wide figures of three, leaving behind them faint white furrows cut in the ice.

He should have gone straight over, but instead he stood there watching and thinking how lovely Adrienne was, gliding effortlessly across the ice like a shadow in a dream.

Eventually the mass of detail piled on detail becomes wearying; and though throughout the novel society Budapest and aristocratic Transylvania are depicted as lost paradises, that vision extends only to the glamourous aristos waltzing and czárdás-ing their way through that golden pre-War afternoon. The working classes are loyal or violent servants or foolish and brutish peasants; the middle classes are scheming moneylenders or cynical nationalist politicians.

To feminist eyes, furthermore, some of Abady and Adrienne’s affair is difficult to read. Adrienne, it is made clear, fears sexual relations with Abady because her own husband has been relentlessly sexually brutal with her; even accepting that Abady is not fully aware of this, his endless strategising throughout the last third of the book in order to get his end away with her becomes trying.

Bánffy’s novel is suffused with nostalgia for a lost world, but in They were counted, at least, there is no thought as to how, or why, that world was lost. Vaguely, he regrets that Hungary became the lesser part of the Dual Monarchy, in thrall to Viennese fashions and influence (the more Austrian a character is, the more likely he is to be a scoundrel); he depicts the travails of the Hungarian parliament from the gently cynical viewpoint of Balint Abady, who although he holds a parliamentary never sees national politics as anything other than secondary to his own reforming aims as a landowning nobleman; he gestures vaguely at nationalist struggles between ethnic Romanians and Hungarians in Transylvania and the movement for general sufffrage in Austria, but these never seem more than shadowy background to the duels and sleigh rides.

We will have to see if the political concerns become more vivid as the trilogy continues; the three books were written between 1934 and 1940, when Bánffy must have been increasingly aware of the presence of the Medes and Persians between whom his country would end up being divided.

 

Resolute

One year my sister’s New Year’s resolution was to become more nuanced. She realised by February that she didn’t like being nuanced and gave it up.

This year lots of people on my twitter seem to be rejecting New Year’s resolutions; someone quoted Gramsci, who wrote:

…I hate these New Year’s that fall like fixed maturities, which turn life and human spirit into a commercial concern with its neat final balance, its outstanding amounts, its budget for the new management. They make us lose the continuity of life and spirit. You end up seriously thinking that between one year and the next there is a break, that a new history is beginning; you make res­o­lu­tions, and you regret your irresolution, and so on, and so forth. This is generally what’s wrong with dates.

I feel more like Emma Woodhouse, who, said Mr Knightley (one of the dullest and most unworthy romantic heros in all literature):

…has been meaning to read more ever since she was twelve years old. I have seen a great many lists of her drawing-up at various times of books that she meant to read regularly through—and very good lists they were—very well chosen, and very neatly arranged—sometimes alphabetically, and sometimes by some other rule. The list she drew up when only fourteen—I remember thinking it did her judgment so much credit, that I preserved it some time; and I dare say she may have made out a very good list now. But I have done with expecting any course of steady reading from Emma.

Patronising tosser.

I make New Years’ resolutions on January 1st, and I make them on my birthday, and I make them on the 1st September (having worked most of my life in education, it is hard to shake the feeling that September brings a new year and a new start); and I make them in spring and midsummer too. I don’t beat myself up for failing to stick to them… but when occasionally I do manage to read more, or do more exercise, or give up booze, I’m pleased. That is, I think, the value in recording one’s aspirations for self-improvement – because one doesn’t always fail. Is that so different from Gramsci, who wanted

…every day […] to reckon with myself, and every day […] to renew myself. No day set aside for rest. I choose my pauses myself, when I feel drunk with the inten­sity of life and I want to plunge into ani­mal­ity to draw from it new vigour.

So here are my resolutions for 2015:

  1. Write more.
  2. Read more, and read more systematically (see Emma, above). I particular this is going to be the year in which I get to grips with Le deuxième Sexe. I’m also keeping a weather eye on #TBR20, which I read about on Jess Meacham’s blog, although I’m not quite sure I’m ready to commit to not buying any more books just yet.
  3. Be less anti-social, and conquer some of the social anxieties that pitched camp in my psyche when I was quite depressed a couple of years back.
  4. Do something organised and political… although I will have to think a while to decide what.
  5. Do something physically active every day.

And with that last one, here’s to plunging into animality to draw from it new vigour. Happy New Year.

 

Happy New Year

Broadly 2012 sucked.

When I told my sister that my resolution for 2013 was that my life should stop sucking she said that I should pick something that was specific, measurable and achievable. Anyway here are my resolutions for 2013:

1. Read more
2. Drink less.
3. Write more.
4. Spend more time with people I like.
5. Get a new job.

Happy New Year to all my readers.