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.



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