Tuesday, December 1, 2020

What I read in November, all in one place for some reason

What I read in November, in list form, with light opinionation.  No idea what good this is to me, except psychologically, and I doubt that, much less to anyone else.  If I wrote something else, I include the link.


La Bête du Vaccarès (1926), Joseph d’Arbaud.  Tourism and other interesting things.

Poèmes : 1919-48, André Breton.  Really just 1932-48.  I would never guess from Breton’s 1930 poems that this is the Surrealism tyrant phase, or the Communist phase.  The poems look a lot like they did in the 1920s.  The “Ode to Charles Fourier” looks different, but that is from 1947.  Breton seems second-rate to me.  Louis Aragon is more linguistically playful, a better poet all around. Benjamin Péret is more pure, more committed to the concept.  Still, I found plenty of good lines, good images, even whole poems.  The little 1934 collection L'air de l'eau (The Air of the Water) seemed especially striking.

La Corde au cou (Rope to the Throat, maybe, 1873), Émile Gaboriau.  Most of my French reading energy was for some reason drained into a 500-page proto-mystery.  I want to write separately about this book.  I hereby commit to etc.  It ain’t The Moonstone, but it’s interesting.


The Complete Poems (1994), Basil Bunting.  A good Auden imitator in the 1930s, the war and a long break from poetry turned him into his own poet, most notably in the long “Briggflats” (1966), but I need to reread him to know what I mean by any of that.

Rescue (1945), Czeslaw Milosz.

North and South (1946), Elizabeth Bishop.

First Poems (1951), James Merrill.

What I really read here are the relevant parts of volumes of Collected Poems (or selected, for Merrill, From the First Nine), so I don’t know what tinkering and quiet omission has been done.  All three poets are firmly material, in contrast to so many Surrealists and Audenists of the previous decade.  If the poem is titled “The Fish,” it may be about many things, but at least one of them, no matter how lost I might get, is a fish.

I caught a tremendous fish
and held him beside the boat
half out of water, with my hook
fast in a corner of his mouth.  (Bishop)

Milosz’s material reality is the destruction of Warsaw and everything around him.  Merrill’s is rather different:

Friday.  Clear.  Cool.  This is your day.  Stendhal
At breakfast-time.  The metaphors of love.  (“Variations: The Air Is Sweetest that a Thistle Guards”)


Young Joseph (1934), Thomas Mann.

The Beast Must Die (1938), Nicholas Blake.  The flap said this is often called the greatest detective novel ever written, which is preposterous.  The 1990 Crime Writers’ Association poll put it at #81 which is plausible.  It is cleverly structured, with the detective not appearing until the exact halfway point.  It is quite funny, with some pathos at the beginning and end.  Since “Nicholas Blake” was a poet, I had hopes that his writing would be interesting, but he writes in the conventional commercial style that almost every English Golden Age mystery writer adopted.  It’s better than the Blake I read a couple of months ago, Thou Shell of Death (1936).

Murphy (1938), Samuel Beckett.

At Swim-Too-Birds (1939), Flann O’Brien.  Wild things going on in Irish fiction at the end of the 1930s!  So much fun.

The Day of the Locust (1939), Nathanael West.  Of West’s three little novels, this apocalyptic small-time Hollywood novel is the most conventional, although certain scenes are spectacular.  The chapter where the protagonist wanders through a wilderness of movie sets, for example – Surrealism perfectly harnessed for narrative fiction.  Still, Miss Lonelyhearts (1933) feels like the one where the abyss is bottomless.

Pale Horse, Pale Rider (1939), Katherine Anne Porter.  Ah, these are great.  Three fifty-page “short novels” (Porter loathed the word “novella”), two of them about her greatest invention, her stand-in character Miranda.  She is a child in “Old Mortality,” working through her family history in East Texas and New Orleans, and a young theater critic in let’s call it Denver in “Pale Horse, Pale Rider,” where she is stricken, hard, with the Spanish flu.  Poor “Noon Wine,” a non-Miranda story, is almost lost between them, but it is good, too, a fine piece of American violence.  But it's "Old Mortality" that is like Texas Proust (the Proust of “Combray,” specifically, the best Proust).

Galileo (1947), Bertolt Brecht.


The Novel, an Alternative History: Beginnings to 1600 (2010), Steven Moore.  A good way to demolish any simple notions of “firstness” – first novel, first English novel, first (any adjective) novel.  Also to demolish any notion of being well-read.  Moore is limited in his reading only by the energy of translators.  An exercise that would be useful simply as a list is also full of good criticism, with extended sections on The Arabian Nights, The Plum in the Golden Vase, The Tale of Genji, and many more books filled with the most extraordinary things.  Learning that some of these books exist at all is a pleasure, like the burst of Byzantine fiction in the 12th century, or Tibetan religious fiction in the 15th.  So much fun.  I said that up above, too.  I could have said it more.


  1. I'm interested in the last one. Or at least I wanna read the Genji section.

  2. The entire Japanese section is 70 pages, of which Genji gets 12. He begins in the 8th century, and covers many Heian novels, as well as other periods. I had so idea there was so much in English, not to mention untranslated novels, and lost novels.

  3. That's some pretty good reading.

    I read the first half of Moore's book when it came out, and I remember getting annoyed at his argument about what constituted a novel. It seemed like pointless semantics, though I was much crankier back then than I am now. I didn't think to use the book as a source book for further reading, which it could easily be. Now I want to take another look at it. I wonder where I shelved it.

    I have a copy of Day of the Locust, but Miss Lonelyhearts is so damned bleak that I have been avoiding it for years now.

  4. I took the Moore book as entirely about further reading, although when that reading will happen, when I could even get the books, I do not know. The book is also a tribute to American university research libraries, particularly the Asian collection at the University of Michigan.

    Some semantics about "what is a novel?" seem necessary for the book to function. I never thought I had to agree on particular cases. Of course, I don't care that much about novels as such. I would as eagerly read the companion volume The Not-a-Novel, an Alternative History.

    Miss Lonelyhearts is of a bleakness not to be described, not to be looked at directly. Locust can only gesture towards its bleakness.

    Something new in American literature, at least.

  5. One of the few volumes of poetry on my own (vs work) shelves is Bishop's complete poems: I bought it because she seems like the kind of poet I would like, plus also Nova Scotia connections. Yet she has never clicked for me: I open the book and put it back. In contrast, I also own Larkin's collected poems and read the volume straight through one summer afternoon. I guess the short version is that (for this novel reader, anyway) poetry is always a bit mysterious.

  6. Straight through! But I guess Larkin's Collected is about as long as Bishop's, not one of those 800 page monsters.

    Sometimes it's the poet, or the collection or just the poem. That's one of the great things about poetry to me, that a poet can feel like a great poet even if just for one poem.

    What combination of a poem with a reader's inclination, attention and circumstance that causes that click, yes, a mystery. An endless quest.

  7. Is any of the c12th Byzantine literature available in English? Uncommon stuff. There was meant to be a Lucianic revival around that time (maybe the same thing?), But no idea if any of it is extant, let alone in English.

  8. Moore says there is one 12th century Byzantine novel available in English, Drosila and Charikles by Niketas Eugenianos, published in 2004 by an obscure press specializing in educational material for the teaching of Latin and Greek.

    Only two other complete novels from the period survive. There is another burst of Greek novellas from the 14th century, three of them in English in Three Medieval Greek Romances.

  9. Czeslaw Milosz had an equally noteworthy contemporary, poet and essayist Zbigniew Herbert, whose work is mostly in English translation.

  10. True, yes. Maybe your comment got cut off somehow.

  11. "Milosz’s material reality is the destruction of Warsaw and everything around him."
    A lot of what I have teed up to read somehow seems to include the destruction of Poland, probably because it seems to have happened several times. I've dipped into Larry Wolff's "Inventing Eastern Europe" (really good, by the way), but I'm really interested in finding good books (nonfiction and fictional settings) on the partitions of Poland in the late 18th century since that seems to resonate so much in later Polish writing. Any recommendations are appreciated.

    Re: Porter. I remember really enjoying Noon Wine. It felt like a Greek tragedy sent in the American southwest.

  12. Milosz, the nut, finds himself outside of Poland after the German invasion, and goes to heroic lengths to get back in!

    I'm afraid I don't know much about Polish history. The book you mention must be of great interest.

    Greek tragedy - yes, "Noon Wine" has a sense of inevitability, of fate working its way.

  13. Very few things are The Moonstone, more's the pity...

    The Moore book sounds enticing! Byzantine, Tibetan, more...

  14. The Moore book is a blast, and although he does tell a bit of a story, each section stands on its own, so if you think "Wait, Tibetan religious novels!" then you can just read that bit.