Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Reading Highlights for 2013

I realized that if I didn’t get this up soon, it’ll be 2015! So, here’s a quick rundown of what my reading highlights were for 2013.

The year started with a bang as I finished up rereading Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, which I had started back in September 2012. One of the greatest novels of all time, and one of the funniest. My main regret is that my French isn’t good enough to read it in the original. (My wife would say that reading it in translation doesn’t count, but what ya gonna do? Not read it at all?) This time I read the Enright revision of the Kilmartin/Moncrieff translation, and it worked for me, flowing beautifully and not getting in the way. Once you get started with this, you get enthralled and it’s really hard to put down. I like the way John Williams puts it: with any great work, it doesn’t take very long to acclimate to Proust’s rhythms and idiosyncrasies. This is not to say the reading experience picks up steam. A nearly extinct brand of patience is required. The pages don’t start turning any faster; I’m just more and more content to be immersed in them. (John Williams, "Reading Proust: A First-Timer Dives In")
I first read Proust back in the early ‘80s, and, not surprisingly, many things have changed about me and my reactions to the novel the second time around. One thing was that since I already had a general idea of how things developed, the major plot twist and turns didn’t amaze me like they did the first time. That’s to be expected. What I didn’t expect, though, was my sense of how well-developed Albertine is as a female character. First time through, knowing as I did that Albertine was based on in part (and was a stand-in for) Proust’s chauffeur Albert Agostinelli, I felt she lacked something as a woman, although that didn’t bother me because I understood (or thought I did) that it was really a homosexual relationship being presented. I so underestimated Proust as a novelist. This time through, I could appreciate (or I think I did) the steps Proust took to ensure that Albertine stands alone outside the hidden context, and further, that she exists on her own very female terms. I am undoubtedly not explaining this as well as could be done, but after all, this is a blog, not a term paper.

Another aspect of the novel that surprised me upon reprise was my strong sympathy for Charlus. I was repelled by him the first time around, but now I sympathized with his plight, and I felt ashamed for Marcel the narrator when he so rudely rejects Charlus. In fact, the whole novel wrenched me up all over again, even though I had a hard time abiding Marcel’s selfish insularity and self-centeredness when it came to Albertine (and to others scattered throughout the book). The first time through, I was much more sympathetic to his jealousy and need of control.

The major publishing event of the year for me was, of course, Pynchon’s new novel Bleeding Edge. Even though I was a bit disappointed, I also know his writing well enough to know that there’s way more to it than what you get on first reading. I’m tired of the clever-strong-likeable-female-falling-for-fascistic-asshole plot point (a strong Pynchon motif in, at least, Vineland, Inherent Vice, and Against the Day). I didn’t totally buy it that Maxine would go so far as to strip and pole dance just to find a certain computer geek at a club--I felt like it was more of an excuse for Pynchon to use the clever club name Joie de Beavre (which, granted, is pretty damn funny).  Never before have I felt that a whole episode of Pynchon’s novels existed solely to be a set-up and not for other reasons as well. Here, it didn’t add anything to the plot that couldn’t have happened otherwise.

All that said, there were many, many moments of pure brilliance in the novel, from Pynchon’s understated depiction of New York City post-911, to his character Speedwell Conkling, a client with a nose for trouble. It was wonderful to return to Pynchon’s world of words. As Jonathan Lethem puts it in his excellent review: “Our reward for surrendering expectations that a novel should gather in clarity, rather than disperse into molecules, isn’t anomie but delight.”

Besides Lethem’s there are two other strong reviews of Bleeding Edge worth seeking out: Michael Chabon’s and Joshua Cohen’s. All three are gathered in one place at the Bleeding Edge wiki. I’m sure I missed way more than I got from a first reading. I’ll get back to it again after revisiting Against the Day.


I really enjoyed Volume 2 of critic and editor Steven Moore’s ongoing history of the novel, The Novel: An Alternative History, 1600-1800. Volume 1 (Beginnings to 1600) was a revelation. Based on his interpretation of the Webster definition of the novel as “a book-length work of fiction,” Moore widely expands the scope and breadth of most literary histories, dealing with works appearing centuries before where most literary histories designate as the start of the novel (say, Tale of Genji or Don Quixote or Pamela). The introduction on its own is well worth reading.

Volume 2 (1600-1800) continues the revelations, although Moore does admit he had to scale back in order to include more of what he’s most interested in, the experimental and the innovative (not surprising given his groundbreaking work on Gaddis). As it is, he cranks through pithy, entertaining commentary on hundreds of novels from all over the world. This is the kind of book that requires having an ongoing list nearby to keep track of everything I must read. Here’s my list of novels to investigate from Vol. 2 alone:

Grimmelhausen, Hans Jakob Christoph von. Simplicissimus (tr. Mike Mitchell) Dedalus, 1999
Richter, Jean Paul. 
1. Invisible Lodge (tr. Charles Brooks, 1883)
2. Hesperus (tr. Charles Brooks, 1865)
3. Flower, Fruit, and Thorn Pieces, etc. (tr. Brooks 1877)
4. Titan (tr. Brooks, 1862)
Sorel, Charles. Critical edition of The Comical History of Francion (1655). Tr. John Wright. Chicago
   Spectrum, 2005
Challe, Robert.  Love and Laughter in the Reign of Louis XIV (The Illustrious French Lovers), tr. 
    Preston, Book Guild, 2008
Marivaux, Pierre. Pharsamond,  tr. Lockman (1743)
Marivaux, Pierre. The Life of Marianne, tr. Lockman? (1750)
Diderot. Jacques the Fatalist and His Master. Tr. Coward, Oxford 1999
Maistre, Xavier de. Voyage around My Room (tr. Sartarelli, New Directions 1994)
Lu Tiancheng. Embroidered Couch. tr. Lenny Hu, 2001
Tung Yueh. Tower of Myriad Mirrors. tr. Shuen-fu Lin & Larry Schulz. Asian Hum. Press. 1978. 2nd  
     ed: U Mich., 2000. Prefer 1st ed. (it is more complete)
Kim Manjung. Kuunmong: The Cloud Dream of the Nine. Tr. Rutt & Kim Chong-un, in Virtuous
     Women: Three Masterpieces of Traditional Korean Fiction. UNESCO, 1974.
Tamenaga Shunsui. Love’s Calendar. Tr. Woodhull. In “Romantic Edo fiction” (PhD diss., Stanford, 
Swift, Jonathan. Tale of a Tub. ed. Walsh. Cambridge, 2010
History of Charlotte Summers. London: Charles Corbett, 1749 [anonymous]
Beckford, William. Vathek (tr. Henley, Marzials)
Adventures of Jonathan Corncob, Loyal American Refugee [anonymous] Godine, 1976 
Brown, Charles Brockden. Edgar Huntly, or, Memoirs of a Sleepwalker (Library of America)

The highlights of this volume were many, and I’ll mention just two: his lengthy essay on Don Quixote (which also appeared as a separate article here), and the masterful essay on Tristram Shandy--what a way to wrap up the 18th century!

You can find an excellent interview with Steven Moore on his project here.

Let’s see… what were the other high reading points for me in 2013? I decided to reread all of the Ian Fleming James Bond novels. That was great fun. My favorites were Moonraker and Diamonds Are Forever

I finally got around to reading the magnificent Recording the Beatles, by Brian Kehew and Kevin Ryan, a masterwork of recording detail and audio gadgetry that’s the best description ever of the technical (and magical) work of George Martin and the team at EMI. It’s the ideal companion to Lewisohn’s Complete Beatles Recording Sessions, with more than you’d ever want to know about reverb, flanging, ADT, and multitrack recording.

I reread Shakespeare’s Tempest in two different editions (Arden second series and Arden third), then watched (and thoroughly enjoyed) the Julie Taymore film with Helen Mirren as Prospero (er, Prospera).

Finally, another novel that really resonated with me was Peter Heller’s The Dog Stars.  A poetically brilliant rendering of a post-apocalyptic world and a meditation on the purpose of life, Dog Stars was just beautifully written. I’d like to close with a passage at length. The main character, Hig, is flying his plane over the mountains, thinking about the past:

Winter Park and the Fraser Valley revealing itself on the other side as we go over. Scores of ski trails tender green against the rust of the dead forests. We used to ski there. The last time Melissa and I split up for a run and I rode next to a big man who said he was here for winter break with a church group from Nebraska. Nondenominational.

We just follow the Bible word for word he said. Word for word you can’t go wrong. Shook his head nice smile. I’d be crazy to disbelieve him.

I thought of stones in a river, rock hopping. One rock to the next, nothing to think about. Word for word. Just follow them, man. Breadcrumbs right to God. Sitting the chair next to him, our skis dangling over sixty feet of air, I thought Maybe there is a different translation for meek. Maybe it’s not the meek who inherit, maybe it is the simple. Not will inherit the earth, they already own it.

I told him I always got stuck at the Begats. I said I had just read Lamentations though and it seemed like Mad Max. I mean women eating their babies, everybody dying.

He didn’t laugh.

He said, I try to stay on the Right Side of the Bible. Left side was written by Jews. Some things to pay attention to, I guess, but if I were you I’d start with John.

We should all have paid more attention to the Left Side I am thinking now. The Wrong Side, the Side Where Shit Goes Really Really Wrong. (p. 157)

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