2019 Reading Round-Up!: Introduction

My round-up of “last year’s books” is coming a bit late as I’ve turned this annual tradition into quite the project, and I was busy writing book reviews. I decided to go ahead and finish it, as I mostly post this for my reader friends, and it doesn’t really matter when I get it up.

I love seeing other people’s book lists, friends and strangers alike, and I’m always so curious to see what someone is reading (on the bus, on their shelves). I started this annual round-up because I wanted to understand what I actually thought about a book, how much of it remained, and what my reading life as a whole amounted to.  I decided to post it online (on a defunct anonymous book blog) so that I would complete the thought and actually finish the exercise. Then it became a way of sharing with my bookish friends scattered around the world, who I miss talking to. They’re not quite reviews, as I think a book review actual owes more to both the readers and writer (I hate summarizing plots, for example). Just a few thoughts.

As usual, the ranking is not necessarily based on literary  excellence, but on how big an impact the book made on me (sparking new thoughts, feeling things, the lingering image); how likely I am to press it into a friend’s hand; how much of it remains months after reading it.

A note on book lists

Seeing all of the best of the year, best of the decade, best of the 21st century book lists at the end of 2019 wasn’t as fun as I’d anticipated. After these lists came the raft of lists most anticipated books of 2020. All of the lists started to feel like this endless, churning mass, or like a crowded conveyor belt of text that’s impossible to keep up with. Obviously this exclusive focus on what’s new is what keeps the publishing industry viable, but it must also be so disheartening for anyone who published a book 3 years ago, or 7 years ago, or 15 years, this feeling of only having a couple of months to make an impact.

I do love discovering a bold and new voice, who is speaking to our precise moment. But there should also be at least a little room in our shared cultural spaces (book coverage in newspapers, book sites like Electric Lit, etc.) to consider work beyond the months (weeks?) of its big debut… I saw some conversations around this on Twitter, with writers/critics attributing this myopic focus to the loss of dedicated book sections in newspapers, well paid book review gigs, etc. Books coverage being reduced to the “listification” of writing about brought by the internet.

It’s sad to lose some of the excitement around new book lists to this general sense of information overload I’ve been trying to keep my head above for the past few years. On the other hand, it’s less pressure to keep up, and maybe make my reading life more intentional.

On the subject of reading books other than what’s hot now, I’ve noticed that, since I began tracking my reading more closely, beginning in 2009, besides reading newish books I’m excited about, I’ve also kept up a steady parallel stream of books published by women in the 1970s. This wasn’t intentional.  I think it’s partly because one writer leads me to another (e.g. Mary McCarthy led me to Elizabeth Hardwick), the fact that there’s been a revival of these writers in recent years who criminally went out of print (Renata Adler, Eve Babitz). I also think it’s because the 1970s were a time of intense, deep-thinking creative production, also in film and music. (The possible reasons why are whole other post.))

Overview

I read 33 fiction, nonfiction and poetry books.  This number is higher than usual, I think in part because I broke up with The New Yorker  in the spring (it’s an up-and-down relationship) and because I tried to get a grip on my social media addiction.

General trends in my reading life in 2019: Lots more nonfiction, mostly essay collections; lots more poetry read cover-to-cover rather than dipped in and out of; a decline in my reading of books in translation and books written in other languages, which I’m not happy about. I also felt a need to re-read books I’ve loved,  so I’ve listed these last, as I’ve written about them at other times.

A few stats on the books I read:

  • 45% were non-fiction (mostly memoir/personal essays, also art/literary history, biography), 39% fiction (mostly novels), 15% poetry
  • 81% were by women, 19% by men (out of 31 total writers)
  • Authors were from the U.S.A. (18 or 58%), United Kingdom (4), France (2), Netherlands (2), Canada, Germany and Spain (1 each)
  • I read 32 books in English, 3 of which were in translation, and 1 book in Spanish.
  • 61% of the books I read were published in the past 10 years, 31% before 2010, 12% in the 1970s. Original dates of publication span 1929-2019.
  • 18% were rereads, 15% were by Rachel Cusk 🙂

2019 Reading Round-Up, Part 1 (Top 5!)

1. A Life’s Work by Rachel Cusk (Faber & Faber, 2001)

2019 was my year of Rachel Cusk, as it was I think for many people, as the conclusion to her pioneering “Faye” trilogy was published in 2018 and brought a lot of buzz. After tearing through a lot of her work, though, this memoir of becoming a mother strikes me as the most remarkable achievement. While I’m not a mother, I’ve thought a lot about parenthood over the years, and how it might change someone. (Or maybe not being a mother when most of the women in my life are is what’s made me all the more curious). How parenthood changes not only how you structure your life, how you structure your time, what you consider important, etc. which are things people usually talk about, but how it changes your sense of self – much harder to articulate—and what Cusk tackles in this memoir.

This isn’t a book exclusively for mothers, just as books about traveling around the world, or going to war, or being a chef aren’t only for readers who have done those things. I say this because it ticks me off the way the experience of motherhood is marginalized as something mainly of interest to mothers. Cusk tears down this ghettoization and the related sentimentality around motherhood and does a surgical (and hilarious) analysis of “the literature” on pregnancy and baby books. She considers the consciousness and existence of a baby on its own terms. She breaks down the complicated sense of being divided in two, a loss of a previous self, the almost-romantic obsessiveness between mother and baby… and a lot more. The world wasn’t ready for this book when it came out. Cusk was trashed as a whiner and even criticized as being a bad mother by her reviewers, and the book relegated to the “mommy war trenches,” rather than considered as a memoir of an intense human experience from a completely individual perspective, setting down thoughts and truths I don’t think have been articulated in print before.

Provenance: The American Book Center, Amsterdam

2. Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil by Hannah Arendt (Penguin Books, this edition 1977, original pub date is 1963)

I’d heard a lot about Arendt’s work (and her name has become current again with the election of Trump), but was frankly intimidated as I don’t feel like my mind is capable of taking in anything labeled philosophy these days. I learned that this book was based on a series of controversial New Yorker articles published in the 60s from a 2012 German film called Hannah Arendt (recommended!), so I overcame my fear, thinking of this book as a very long New Yorker article.

I could write a whole essay about what I took away from this book. The short version in list form: as promised by the title, an analysis of the psychology and bureaucracy behind obedience to horrific crimes against humanity; an absolutely unwavering moral clarity, intent on seeing clearly through sentimentality and politics (she isn’t afraid to criticize the effect of these on the court proceedings for example, or to speak openly of the political motivations of Israel and Germany in the trial); the concise account of the “Final Solution” treated by country, a tremendous synthesis done in under 100 pages, revealing the sort of resistance that worked against the Nazis (in Scandinavia, for example), perceived as inexorable in other places; her style, which is acerbic, unflinching, erudite, confident.

It was Arendt’s tone that essentially what got her into trouble. Critics understandably were bothered by her being able to find anything funny about the situation, but I think this acerbic tone is a sign of her courage. Arendt demands truthfulness in language, and she refuses to hide behind platitudes. Cries of “Never Again” were already stale at the time she wrote this book (early 1960s), as the impunity so many of the perpetrators were granted in Germany and elsewhere was obvious. Sentiment and good intentions aren’t enough, only an international criminal court could serve as potential deterrent and retribution for these acts. (An institution that came to be! And for which I worked for 3 years!) It’s her faith in and respect in the power of language that allows her to see the humor in Eichmann’s use and abuse of language, his utter reliance on clichés and platitudes, especially about the worst acts committed by the Third Reich.

I used to define life difficulties as challenges to writing (or creative production, generally), but lately a different path has been apparent, writing as a way through them, although this is very, very hard, to plunge into the material. But maybe it’s a way out. This thought comes from contemplating the lives of amazing writers, who survived terrible things, but wrote through them. Writing as a way of surviving. I’m thinking of Natalia Ginzburg, who survived WWII through much hardship, including losing her beloved husband (who died imprisoned by the Fascists) and other family members; Marguerite Duras, who survived childhood with a mentally ill mother, lost a child, battled alcoholism, but wrote and made films through all of it. Arendt was a Jewish German woman who, though she fled the country before the worst was to come, but still bore witness to so much horror. To write something so clear, uncompromising (and even at times bemused), finding a way through the emotional, political, historical complications of the Holocaust (when it’s easier and understandable to retreat, to be too tired to pick up the pen) is an incredible act of strength and courage.

Origin: Boekenzolder (free book warehouse in Leiden!)

3. Outline by Rachel Cusk (Faber & Faber, 2014)

This is the first in Cusk’s so-called Faye trilogy. I loved:
–  How this novel was formally experimental but still absolutely emotionally piercing. (Not much happens, it’s mostly made up of the narrator, a British writer teaching a workshop in Athens, retelling stories other people tell her.)
– How it gives you the dislocated feeling of travel, where your senses are heightened and the smallest details (a poster in a cafe) take on some yet-unknown significance.
–  How Faye has a weary, post-traumatic tone, but still manages to throw shade (on the obnoxious and Irish writer, a fellow teacher, for example).
– How much it gets accomplished in 150 pages or so.
I wrote a lot more about this trilogy  here.

Provenance: The American Book Center, The Hague

4. Sleepless Nights by Elizabeth Hardwick (Virago Press, 1979)

A stunning polished gem of a novella. I got something akin to Stendhal syndrome from the first chapter of this book, which sounds dramatic, but is true. I felt physically overwhelmed by how good it was at the language level, and felt something like panic that I was incapable of taking it all in at once. I read the Paris Review interview with Hardwick after reading this, and she talks about how much of her process (and her favorite part of the writing process) is revision and polishing, which gave me a better sense of how writing of this intensity and caliber is possible.

A difficult read, not because of the plotlessness, which doesn’t tend to bother me, but the relentless grimness of the episodes within. A work about the autumn of life, memory, regret, getting old. I had more to say about it here.

Superficial side note: New York Review Books, the press I’m crushing hardest on lately, recently reissued this (along with much of Hardwick’s other work) with a much better cover in their beautiful editions.

Provenance: Boekenzolder (free book warehouse in Leiden!)

5. Ways of Seeing by John Berger (Penguin, 1972)

Have I mentioned I love concision? This is like a manifesto in that it’s slim and small, but you could start a revolution based on the ideas contained within, the questions it asks. For example: what was the social function of European painting? Why is the average person alienated from this direct line to our past? Why so many naked women? How do you look at a painting and how are you “supposed to” look at a painting? By art historian and novelist John Berger (oh just realized I have to put so many of his other books on my to-read, given the impact and brilliance of this one.)

This book is based on a BBC series produced in the 1970s, a little pocket paperback with black-and-white photos. A larger edition with full-color reproductions is desperately needed, given the content. Get on this, Penguin!

Provenance: Ordered from Better World Books

Thoughts on Herman Koch’s Summer House with Swimming Pool

First published in 2011, English translation in 2014

This novel is by the author of The Dinner, probably the best known work of fiction by a Dutch writer in recent history (which I haven’t read). This book was written after that success. I picked it up at a bookstore clearance sale, thinking I should read more Dutch writers. First the positive: Koch is good at suspense. The story had me in its grip, and he can build a character, scene and clear narrative voice. This translation felt right, too. It isn’t ever conspicuous or awkward in its construction, but it also somehow transmitted a European voice (as opposed to an American or British one).

Unlikable protagonists have been a favored vehicle fiction in the past 20 years or so, including in television (Tony Soprano, Don Draper, Walter White) and movies (Young Adult), although, granted the male ones are more easily accepted by audiences than female ones (e.g. Moshfegh’s Eileen). Koch takes up this device, creating, it seems, the most unlikable person he could imagine: a misanthropic doctor who is disgusted by the human body; who treats mostly artists, but dislikes art; who views having daughters rather than sons as a misfortune; who sexually objectifies every woman who crosses his path, etc. I think the intention is a kind of black humor but I can’t help but suspect the author behind it took some delight in setting down views that have become unacceptable via his creation, which he can easily disown – “scientifically based” sexism, for example (men are wired to impregnate young women and women are wired to want to reproduce with successful men) and homophobia (anal sex is unnatural). I suspect the author more than his character, because much of that stuff, in the end, is gratuitous, not in service to the story. Even if we give the author the benefit of the doubt (as a reader should) and don’t entangle him with his character, the mechanics of the story itself raise some questions. For example, how rape is positioned as a plot motivator, or how a single anonymous gay character offers a sympathetic ear to the evil doctor after suffering humiliation at his hands.

Questions of author v. narrator aside, I also thought that for being a tightly plotted suspense story, the ending sort of collapses. While there is great tension from chapter to chapter, when you examine the ending, or start asking questions (e.g. why doesn’t a medical doctor consider the possibility of DNA evidence before assuming who has raped his daughter and deliberately spreading cancer in his body?), the whole thing sort of collapses. There are also at least two multi-paragraph descriptive passages involving semen, which are two too many in my view. In short: not recommended!

Thoughts on Elizabeth Hardwick’s Sleepless Nights

I was chatting with two women a a literary event this spring. They were both in their 50s, full of knowledge, and talking about their experiences with Stendhal syndrome, based on Stendhal’s experience when visiting Florence. It’s a (medically debated) condition of being physically overcome by a piece of art to the point of being dizzy, overwhelmed, weeping. (From Wikipedia: “The staff at Florence’s Santa Maria Nuova hospital are accustomed to tourists suffering from dizzy spells or disorientation after viewing the statue of David, the artworks of the Uffizi Gallery, and other historic relics of the Tuscan city.[1]“) One of the women said it had happened to her twice in her life, once seeing the opera made of Toni Morrison’s Beloved, and the second time on seeing a Rothko painting, from across the room. The other woman had also experienced it with a painting. They turned expectantly to me, and I, embarrassed said that I hadn’t ever experienced it. But I thought it was better than lying about having experienced such a thing. I’d been dazzled by art, had a physical response to it, but never a kind of reaction they described.

I read this Virago edition. It was recently reprinted by NYRB, with a better cover.

Since then, I do think I experienced something like Stendhal syndrome reading the first 20 pages or so of Sleepless Nights. I didn’t break down weeping, but I felt dizzy, overcome, a little panicked as I moved from sentence to sentence. I couldn’t take the precision, the power of each one, the turns, the unexpected rightness of each image. I was anxious about not being able to take it all in, that I was unworthy or would need to read it a dozen times to take it in. It sounds so dramatic when I set it down like this, and I can’t say that it was pleasant, but the bottom line is that the writing is stunning.

However, I haven’t put this slim novel at the top of my list of recommended books because it is so melancholic and grim. It’s about faded glory, the bill collector arriving, the loneliness of old age, the winter of life.  Not the best book to read as you’re staring down 40, turning the corner.

It took me a while to understand what Hardwick was doing with this book, what it was, but I also didn’t care that it wasn’t immediately apparent, because of the deliciousness of the language. The narrator is a woman, named Elizabeth. Over the course of the book, she recalls people in her life, tracing their fates over time. Often the people are downtrodden, ill-fated: Billie Holiday in a Harlem club; residents of a New York City rooming house; a Jewish Dutch doctor who survived the Nazi camps, had life-affirming affairs in Amsterdam afterwards, in his old age, with his bitter alcoholic wife; a lover from Elizabeth’s youth, abandoned by his long-time partner, come to see her to complain, his life has amounted to not-much; the cleaning women she has known, their difficult lives, difficult ends of lives. It would be sort of unbearable if the writing weren’t so alive in contrast.

Hardwick joins the list of criminally under-appreciated women who were writing in the 60s and 70s, and who I’ve had to discover on my own. They include Renata Adler, Eve Babitz, Grace Paley… (Obviously Susan Sontag, Joan Didion, and Hannah Arendt are/were more visible, but I like that they inhabited the same world and had contact with each other at the time, even if “only” through their words.)

Thoughts on Rachel Cusk’s “Outline” Trilogy

Image source

         Rachel Cusk has become my 2019 obsession, by which I mean that her books have been the irresistible ones, the ones I’m compelled to buy despite the piles of unread ones in the house. It’s because of the precision of her writing, her descriptions of individuals, landscapes, rooms, and the atmospheres in the rooms,  that are concise and vivid and simultaneously unusual and spot-on. The way emotion is intensely present but not overstated on the page. Her sense of humor, grim and dry, and the way she takes on difficult subjects without looking away. The way she dives straight into the essential question, problem, point of fracture or heartbreak.

Her so-called “Outline” or “Faye” trilogy, feels so much of this time, though I haven’t entirely figured out why. I don’t just mean references to Brexit or sideways commentary on the state of the publishing industry, though those kinds of things do make an appearance. I mean the narrative experiment going on, in terms of both the position Cusk takes as an author and Faye takes as a narrator.

Author v. narrator v. narrative

 Cusk has essentially said that she had to step away from writing as herself after being viciously, personally attacked by the press, and some readers, following the publication of her memoirs on becoming a mother (A Life’s Work, which is stunning and hilarious and brilliant) and her divorce (Aftermath, which I haven’t read).

The author has put aside the construct of a plot, perhaps distrusting whatever use an invented storyline can be to our lives, and instead seeks to dig into the stories people tell each other or tell about themselves. The form is experimental in that the narrator, Faye, is a writer who hides behind the retelling of other people’s stories. In the first book, she travels to Athens to teach a writing workshop; she buys and renovates an apartment in London in the second; and attends a writer’s conference in Portugal in the third. We learn that she is divorced, that she has two children. This is the slender framework of the trilogy. The meat of the books are the stories of the people she meets – strangers on airplanes, her writing students, her hairdresser, old friends, journalists who interview her. She retells and reshapes their accounts and confessions. Their stories are shards of a mirror that refract and reflect each other, and Faye in a more subtle way. There are many possible themes, or maybe these are better phrased as questions: What happens after you let go of the story of the life you imagined for yourself? What do parents do to children? What do men do to women? What does suffering bring? What does it create? What is static and what is changeable about the self? What generates the creative act?

 It’s significant that Faye is a writer only insofar as that renders her capable of such vivid and at times scathing portraits. It seems like she’s erasing herself in favor of painting portraits of others, but she’s retelling their stories in her own words. She’s not repeating them verbatim.

Conversations with strangers on a plane occur early in two of the books, which sets the tone for the project. Why does that happen, people pouring their hearts out to strangers on a plane? Because it is a temporary space, because there is an intimacy borne of the close physical proximity, because the stranger will never be seen again, because there’s always a sense of mortality and powerlessness about being on a plane. There are other types of scenarios that inspire people to confide: the hairstylist’s chair (but in this case it’s the hairstylist who discloses), a gathering of writers, where there is almost a one-upmanship to prove who is the most damaged (and perhaps, then the more interesting writer?), a dinner with an old friend not seen in years, a writing workshop where students are willing to make themselves vulnerable. Sometimes the revelations by the speaker are unconscious, and only a careful listener (or reader) would pick up on the hypocrisy or self-deceptions that emerge from contradictory assertions.

But other times, the radically honest confidences are not in the context of any special relationship or setting, they just come. In the world of the trilogy, Faye is able to conjure this sort of atmosphere with, apparently, anyone she talks to. Faye usually omits the questions that lead to these radical disclosures from friends, and at times, near strangers. It’s fiction in that sense, a world more interesting than the one we inhabit. We aren’t usually privy to the questions she asks that makes the other person reveal the unutterable secret that holds their marriage together, the time they beat their children’s beloved dog, the assault by a stranger that made them unable to create. It’s an intense and double-edged fantasy, and certainly the fantasy of a writer.

I think Cusk, in her memoirs, and also in the character of Faye, takes on a hapless persona, a character who is always uncomfortable, but not afraid to express that discomfort, as if everyone should feel that way. She’s not afraid to be a bummer and I found this quality enchanting, the unapologetic quality of it. London is hostile, but Athens is too bright, the sunshine harsh and disorienting. For Faye, in the first two books, this discomfort comes from heartbreak, but heartbreak that goes deeper than the romantic kind. She, and her children, are survivors of the rending of their domestic life, the obliteration of certainties in the life the family had built together. In the first two books she is stumbling in the rubble, still obligated to tend to the needs of students, to men wanting an audience, to malicious neighbors, to her children, in this state of aftershock.

Funny

The grim tone is a foil to the funny scenes and could perhaps lead one to miss the humor. When Faye’s plane “neighbor, ” who has twice taken her out on his boat for a swim in the Greek heat, and who, with each of his monologues has revealed the straight-out lies he told about his two wives and himself, makes a pass at Faye, the action is startling and somehow hilarious. Maybe because we’re jolted to attention with live action actually taking place, as opposed to happening via a second- or third-hand account. But it’s also the description of the man’s advance itself, where she depicts him as moving like some kind of prehistoric caveman creature.

There’s also the scene in Transit, back in Britain, set in a posh country house, where a glamorous set of guests and their children have gathered, their complex troubles attendant, too. Faye’s gourmand cousin, who is peevishly trying to develop the children’s picky  palates, sets down plates of tiny roasted fowl before all, and the children scream and weep at the dead little animals, candles blazing all around them, illuminating and flushing their faces like a painting. It’s a perverse and funny kind of climax near the very end of the book before Faye slips away from the mess the next morning.

Reception

I haven’t talked to anyone in person who has read the trilogy, though I’m frequently praising Cusk to reader friends, so maybe my proselytizing will lead to a chance to discuss it. In the meantime, I’ve read all of the reviews and profiles of Cusk online. The critical consensus seems to be that Kudos, the last book, is the culmination of the three. My theory is that this is because it’s the one that deals most explicitly with the publishing industry and its troubled marketing apparatus, with the fake and tedious aspects of the book fair, with the parrying done by writers at the after-panel dinners. It’s like how film critics love films about film-making and the film industry, the insider’s view of the process makes you feel closer to it.

But I think Faye/Cusk could make anywhere interesting  – I remember starting Outline and being dazzled by how she made that familiar ritual of flight takeoff and the safety demonstration seem alien and new. And while it could be argued that Outline, too, is about the writing life (teaching a workshop), this is more the framework than the atmosphere or substance of the book, which are concerned with the sense of separation that comes from traveling, being away from home, taking in others’ pain. Faye is preternaturally sensitive while also standing behind glass. In Transit, the middle book, we see more of Faye because she’s at home. It’s full of a different tension. As she seeks to rebuild her life, most visibly by renovating dilapidated apartment, there’s an underlying anxiety about how quickly anything can be destroyed. Her monstrous downstairs neighbors, for example, befoul her attempts at starting fresh. The novel is full of shattered glass: the glass door at her hairdressers destroyed by a nervous boy slamming the door, the window of Faye’s car, which she has locked in the keys, smashed by her inconsiderate date, who wouldn’t wait to get his stuff. She must stand waiting with the car alarm wailing.

My favorite of the three was Outline, maybe simply because it was my first encounter with Cusk’s writing, but I think also because it so tangibly conveys the feeling of travel: the launch of the journey on the plane, the increasing sense of separation from home life, the intensity that weather, every new face and street corner takes on, because it is new, and because of the knowledge that it is all temporary.

It’s saudade

There was a word in his language, I said, that was hard to translate but that could be summed up as a feeling of homesickness even when you are at home, in other words as a sorrow that has no cause. This feeling was perhaps what had once driven his people to roam the world, seeking the home that would cure them of it. It may be the case that to find that home is to end one’s quest, I said, but it is with the feeling of displacement itself that the true intimacy develops and that constitutes, as it were, the story. Whatever the kind of affliction it is, I said, its nature is that of the compass, and the owner of such a compass puts all his faith in it and goes where it tells him to go, despite appearances telling him the opposite. It is impossible for such a person to attain serenity, I said, and he might spend his whole life marvelling at that quality in others or failing to understand it, and perhaps the best he can hope for is to give a good imitation of it, as certain addicts accept that while they will never be free of their impulses they can live alongside them without acting on them. What such a person cannot tolerate, I said, is the suggestion that his experiences have not arisen out of universal conditions but instead can be blamed on particular or exceptional circumstances, and that what he was treating as truth was in fact no more than personal fortune; any more than the addict, I said, ought to believe that he can regain his innocence of things of which he already has a fatal knowledge.

From Kudos, by Rachel Cusk

I finished this last book in Cusk’s incredible “Outline” trilogy today, and I’m still pondering this passage. Faye is responding to a young interviewer who’s trying to persuade her that she would be happy if she lived somewhere sunny. Her response appears to be that the questing dissatisfaction that drives her shouldn’t be attributed to her personal misfortunes, and that it is not ultimately a quality that she can or perhaps even wants to reject. This follows on one of the central questions Faye/Cusk seems to be asking: What does suffering bring? What does it make possible?

It is alive

This struggle to get the words out of my mouth took me right back to a year in my childhood when I did not speak at all. Every time I was asked to speak up, to speak louder, the words ran away, trembling and ashamed. It is always the struggle to find language that tells me it is alive, vital, of great importance. We are told from an early age that it is a good thing to be able to express ourselves, but there is as much invested in putting a stop to language as there is in finding it. Truth is not always the most entertaining guest at the dinner table, and anyway, as Duras suggests, we are always more unreal to ourselves than other people are.

Deborah Levy, from The Cost of Living

The Lost Civilization of Women

Image source (Rome)

The scales have tipped. The glass is overflowing. I’m not sure when the drop that caused the overflow happened, but it feels different now, the fact of women’s writing, women’s words in the world. As a child, a teenager in school, I felt the general tokenization of women. I received by osmosis (from textbooks, from teachers), the sense that “women writers” needed to be included in curricula to fill a quota, but that they weren’t quite as good as the writers that didn’t require a modifier (male writers).

Then, when trying to write, learning to write, there was the sense, also transmitted by teachers, anthologies, peers, that I should try to write to fit in with the men, to impress the men in the room, in the canon, at the publishers. Gradually, this fueled a rebellion and I wanted to read only women, discover women’s writing that wasn’t anthologized or talked about in institutions, and write like a woman (whatever that means, if anything). But this felt like a kind of isolation, marginalization in my reading and writing life. [The usual disclaimer: I’m writing from a mostly English-language, mostly American perspective…]

But the chauvinism isn’t a given now. The rejection of it is palpable! Women writers are becoming just writers, no modifier required. Joan Didion is the aspiration, not Norman Mailer. Women, who comprise the majority of fiction readers, now number among the critics. So many more varied women’s voices are being published, on a large scale, by major publishers, from mass market to literary. That’s not to say there’s still not a way to go, of course. This is the beginning and it feels great.

What’s struck me recently is that not only are new voices being published, but women writers from the past are being resurrected and appreciated. In the U.S., Eve Babitz, Lucia Berlin, Clarice Lispector, Elizabeth Hardwick, Penelope Fitzgerald, Renata Adler have all had a recent renaissance as major literary figures of the 20th century. (Parul Sehgal of the New York Times wrote an interesting piece about this phenomenon and paying attention to what caused the vanishing in the first place.) Not only was Zora Neale Hurston’s book on a former slave published in 2018, 90 years after it was written, it got a surprising amount of ink when it did (History.com, NPR, The Huffington Post, The New Yorker, The Daily Mail!).

I took this in Arco, Italy. This fresco was inside the ruins of a medieval castle. I loved that it depicted, of all things (and after seeing so many sad Christs and saints and naked goddesses), clothed ladies playing a dice game and having fun in the 1300s.

I’ve been thinking of all of the Modernist women I skipped over in my education, whose work I still haven’t read. I was reading T.S. Eliot, William Carlos Williams, Ezra Pound hungrily, but skipped over Mina Loy, H.D. I didn’t know about Djuna Barnes, Kay Boyle, who were there all along, drinking and smoking with the dudes, and writing, too.

As someone with an interest but no particular expertise on visual art, I’ve been peripherally aware of a similar tendency in that realm, as well. I was delighted by Peter Schjeldahl decrying the title “Woman Impressionist” of the big 2018 Berthe Morisot show at the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia (“a great artist who is not so much underrated in standard art history as not rated at all”). There was the recent astounding Hilma Af Klint show at the Guggenheim. She was painting abstract forms in the early 20th century on her own, as part of a spiritual search, long before Kandinsky, and didn’t want to be shown in her time for fear of being misunderstood. There was Yayoi Kusama’s triumphant, late-career world domination, beginning with the blockbuster show at the Hirshhorn in 2017. A big Frida Kahlo show now at the Brooklyn Museum. Joan Mitchell’s work setting auction records. (I’d never heard of her before last year, but of course had heard of de Kooning and Pollock.) I’ve seen lots of Artemisia Gentileschi’s images pop up all over the Internet. Hopefully the art history books are being rewritten. These people, their work, have been there the whole time.

I don’t have the same evidence, but a sense or hope that this transformation–the recognition of women who were there all along, making history and culture–is happening in other areas, too, ones that I track less, like comedy, film, food, and science.

This resurrection of women from the past makes me think of an ancient civilization that’s discovered beneath the living city. It was there all along. We are excavating, removing the layers of dirt that was dumped on women’s work. We’re carefully lifting it up, dusting it, examining it, valuing it, attempting to connect it to other fragments. We’re realizing, too, what’s been lost and can’t be recovered.

Evidence of this past civilization goes even further back. I don’t know why we’ve assumed it was only men drafting illuminated manuscripts, sculpting goddess figures, painting on cave walls, but we do, I do. We need scientific proof that it was possible women were doing these things, otherwise we don’t believe it, can’t picture it. I saw several articles making the rounds recently about flecks of blue lapis lazuli being found in the teeth of a 1,000 skull of a nun in a German monastery. It’s evidence that women, too, created beautiful illuminated manuscripts. There’s scientific proof that most cave paintings were done by women. And there’s the theory that “the first images
of the human figure [fertility goddesses] were made from the point of view of self rather than other” and “Paleolithic ‘Venus’ figurines represent ordinary women’s views of their own bodies.”

Image source

The uncovering of women’s part in our civilization and culture isn’t a physical discovering. It’s been there all along. We covered it up and made ourselves blind to it. We have to remove the layers of dirt from history books, museums, our own minds and consciousness…

Feeding the Machine

Source: This Reddit thread

When I read On Photography a few years ago, I was blown away by Susan Sontag’s prescience about how central the image has become in our culture (over the word): an object of constant consumption, a form of communication, a signal of ownership or status, etc… Via photography, and also advertising, TV, and now, Instagram, Facebook, etc. I was longing for her to still be around to philosophize about the Internet, memes, social media. (Like I wished Andy Warhol had been alive to see RuPaul’s Drag Race when it launched in 2009.) She would have had such fascinating insights into this new common consciousness.

In this interview she gave in 1977, she touches on this contemporary consciousness, which at the time she identified as an “electronic, multimedia, multi-tracked McLuhanite world,” the embryo of our 2019 way of being. This sounds like an insightful description of our social media lives. It really sounds like the Internet, it’s amazing:

“You can say anything in any context–the nature of modern communication systems is that anything can be said, any context is equivalent to any other context so that things can be placed in many different contexts at the same time, like photography. But there’s something profoundly compromising about that situation. Of course, there’s also a great advantage to it because it allows for a liberty of action and consciousness that people have never had before. But it means that you can’t keep original or profound meanings intact because inevitably they’re disappointed, adulterated, transformed and transmuted–it’s a world in which everything is being recycled and recombined and things are being reduced to a common denominator. So when you launch an idea for a fantasy or a theme or an image to the world, it has this tremendous career that you can’t possibly control or limit. And that’s perhaps another more immediate reason why one is tempted to be silent sometimes. You want to share things with other people, but on the other hand you don’t want to just feed the machine that needs millions of fantasies and objects and products and opinions to be fed into it every day in order to keep going.

From Susan Sontag: The Complete Rolling Stone Interview by Jonathan Cott (Yale University Press, 2013).

Brilliant take-down of Michel Houllebecq

in this week’s New Yorker. I don’t believe in criticism for the sake of showing off how clever you are. I also think if you are interested in the arts, you will be more satisfied at the end of your life if you worked to support artists rather than take them down. But I also don’t believe solid criticism shouldn’t exist and that negative opinions should never be stated.

Michel Houellebecq’s books have garnered enough attention that they won’t be destroyed by close, critical, rather devastating examination. James Wood isn’t intimidated by Houellebecq’s Frenchness. He exposes his writing as misogynist, pseudo-philosophical, and worse, not that well written:

“Is Michel Houellebecq really a novelist, or is he just a novelizing propagandist? Though his thought can be slapdash and hasty, it is at least earnest, intensely argued, and occasionally thrilling in its leaps and transitions … But the formal structures that are asked to dramatize these ideas – the scenes characters, dialogue, and so on – are generally flimsy and diagrammatic. Characters, usually women, are killed off with flippant dispatch, backstories pencilled in with bald strokes, scenes cursorily sketched, conversation often ludicrously implausible or monotonously self-therapeutic.”

Ouch… I get the feeling people read Houellebecq because of the dramatic nihilism and the “pornographic fervor of his writing and for the theorizing he likes to do around his sex scenes”. It makes you feel cool. And it’s translated from French, he’s a compatriot of Barthes, Lacan, Foucault…

James Wood became my critic-hero when he took down Paul Auster in The New Yorker a few years ago. I had always thought Auster was overrated and formulaic, so much post-modern posturing. I got tired of seeing his books around – so many better novels people could be talking about! I suspected he was big in Europe because his translators were better writers than he was and because they take place in New York City. I kept scouring the web for like-minded readers, to no avail. Wood wrote a wonderfully lucid, analytical and devastating critique of Auster, the essay I had been hungry to read.

Other vastly overrated novelists (in my humble opinion): Jonathan Safran Foer, Gary Shteyngart, Ayn Rand (right? NOT GOOD WRITING, plotting, dialogue, etc.), Tao Lin, Brett Easton Ellis (though I’ve only read Less Than Zero, so perhaps that’s unfair).

Incidentally, there’s another brilliant take-down in this week’s issue. Peter Schjeldahl on Damien Hirst: “Hirst will go down in history as a peculiarly cold-blooded pet of millennial excess wealth. That’s not Old Master status, but it’s immortality of a sort.”

He has two very incisive sentences (on Hirst’s spot paintings) that could apply to so much contemporary poetry I encounter: “His work comprehends all manner of things about previous art except, crucially, why it was created. It smacks less of museums than of art-school textbooks. What may pass for meaning in the spot paintings is the sum of their associations in the history of abstraction. The more you know of that, the cleverer the paintings might make you feel. Buying one, you can hang it on your wall like a framed diploma from Smartypants U.”