Thursday, December 16, 2010

The Wuthering Expectations Best of 2010, I guess

The best book I read all year was, easily, incontestably, Moby-Dick.  The closest competitors, in audacity, scope, intensity, were the Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson and the first edition of Leaves of Grass. A different kind of reader would include The Brothers Karamazov.  I don’t want to write about any of these – I wrote plenty about Melville and Whitman, did justice to Dostoevsky, and have just barely begun to pretend to comprehend that enormous bolus of Dickinson.

Makes her sound pretty appealing, yes?  One of things I had to say about Whitman was that he had dropped a Brooklyn city directory on his foot.  I forgot I wrote that.  Not bad, huh?  If you can’t make yourself laugh – where was I?

So I don’t really want to write about the Best Books of the Year.  How about the Biggest Surprises?

1.  There’s this Argentine surrealist, César Aira, who writes weird little novel-like thingaroos.  I read three of them this year.  An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter (2000) has a scene where a painter, and his horse, are struck by lightning, and then struck by lightning again, that is an unbelievable piece of writing.  Just crazy, stunning.  Nuts.

2.  I could single out every other episode of Gottfried Keller’s enormous Green Henry (1854).  In Part 3, Chapter 1, young Henry encounters the collected works of Goethe.  “From that hour I did not leave the couch, and I read for forty days on end, during which time the winter returned, and the Spring came back, but the white snow, whose shining I saw but heeded not, passed me by like a dream” (tr. A. M. Holt).  Green Henry is absolutely suffused with Goethe, dripping with Goethe.

3.  The City of Dreadful Night (1874), Bysshe Vanolis!  An amazing piece of poetic crankery, a brilliant pastiche of English and European poetry, a serious attempt to bring Baudelaire and Nerval into English.  The universe as a clock with no hands, the sinners who have so little hope that they cannot even go to hell, the Childe Roland-like wasteland of despair.  Fantastic, in all senses.

4.  Speaking of wastelands of despair, my weirdest experience of the year was reading one of my own recurring dreams in George MacDonald’s Lilith (1895).  Please read that dream-stuffed book; maybe you’ll find one of your own.  That reminds me one of the year’s true highlights, a guest post on MacDonald by my mother.  Thanks, Mom!

5.  All those French poets – Verlaine, Rimbaud, Hugo, Corbière, Laforgue, Mallarmé.  But I guess they were not surprises.  Like I didn’t know they were going to be good.  Please.

6.  Still, they were full of lots of individual little surprises.  As there were in, to switch to a novel I knew I would love, Parade’s End by Ford Madox Ford.  The Armistice scene at the end of the third book, A Man Could Stand Up- (1926), it just builds and builds, and then, a joyous pow!  I looked for a quotation, but out of context, none will make sense.

That’s plenty, I guess.  No room for Moishe Leib Halpern, or Clarel, or The Ebb-Tide, or Skylark. No James Hogg or Tolstoy or Kalidasa.  Peter Pan floats away on a bird's nest.  The mayor of Casterbridge witnesses his own drowned body.  The time traveler witnesses the senescence of the earth.  This is now.

Next year, I guess: more books.  Or maybe I should just read these again.  They sound pretty good.


  1. It's been too long since I read Parade's End; it may be time for a re-read. I remember being completely overwhelmed by it--it was one of those books I absolutely lived in for a week.

    And I definitely have to get the new Aira. I've only read a couple of his books, but they've stuck with me, Ghosts especially. They're maybe the hardest pieces of fiction to describe that I've ever encountered.

    Oh, and you may have convincedm e to read Lilith. How creepy was it to encounter your own dream? I assume, um, very?

  2. The more I reflect on Parade's End the more impressed I become. Hopefully our library will obtain the annotated versions as they are released because it is something I definitely want to revisit.

    The second part of A Man Could Stand Up blew me away and set the stage for the part you mention. I hope Mel's readalong encouraged people to visit/re-read Ford's work.

  3. Nothing surprising from all the Scottish literature?

  4. I have the first vol. of the annotated Parade's End on order-for sure I will post on it-I also was quite overwhelmed by Parade's End-I still get people visiting our vsrious posts on Parade's End everyday-

    Amateur Reader-your list was very interesting and inspiring-

  5. I see I left out a word, "joyous." I'll put it in. The big surprise of the end of that particular Parade's End scene was how the tension built to such a joyous release.

    Boy, though, I could have picked any number of other startlingly good scenes. That annotated edition ought to be mighty interesting.

    Now, the Aira books - what Levi said. It sure helped me to identify Aira as a surrealist. Explained not a lot, but a little.

    That dream in Lilith. It was not creepy, exactly, but uncanny. At first I was sure I misread something. I had to reread the passage a couple of times to believe it. Almost enough to make a person a Jungian.

    As for Scots - Vanolis and MacDonald in the main list, Hogg and Peter Pan and The Ebb-Tide in the supplement. That, I tell you, was a rewarding, if incoherent, project.

  6. Really you cherish the classics. I met few surprises. A scene that came out as odd in one beautiful novel was when a warrior in the midst of fighting with arrows all around remembered a tiny piece of flower in his mother's garden.

  7. What a nicely artful moment. I could have picked a surprise or two from Things Fall Apart, which I finally read - scenes with the daughter, Ezinma, especially.

  8. Mental note to read Aira, thank you.

    And definitely Moby Dick. In fact, I think I'll start reading it this evening.

    Merry Christmas!

  9. Michelle, or anyone interested - there is an outstanding piece about Aira in the current New York Review of Books (Jan. 13, 2011) by Michael Greenberg. Not available on the internet to non-subscribers, but worth looking for at the newsstand.

  10. Thanks for the tip, I'll look for a copy.