Thursday, January 08, 2009

Literary retrospective 2008

Ok, this is probably going to be borderline ridiculous. I can't even pretend there's a tradition to uphold here, either. There is egotism, though, as noble a force as any.

Last year's reading list was rather average, as you might have guessed. The one positive was the conscious move away from the Western canon, which I was inexplicably stuck for longer than is healthy. It turns out that, as I suspected, there have been good novels since 1930 too. I'll probably get around to re-reading Kafka and Camus someday, but at the moment I'm going to continue trying to spread out. This pretense of being a classicist when it comes to reading was really stifling me, and I've been enjoying my nascent journey in the rest of the literary world.

If I had to pick a favourite among this year's limited batch, I would have to say it was Paul Auster's New York Trilogy. There are two very personal metrics I have for measuring the "meaning" a book has for me. First, at least temporarily, my view of the world is forcibly moulded into whatever the book decides. Invading my dreams is a good start, but sometimes I also imagine that I have read something that has elucidated very deep truths about life that I have long suspected, but never been able to put down in words. It's the point of all books, I suppose, except that this sort of thing is rarely achieved. Auster's book is the first since Crime and Punishment where, on reading it, I started feeling as lost, confused, and unhinged as the narrator(s); that is a huge compliment, incidentally. It is easy to simply state that the world is chaotic, that life can sometimes be mysterious, etc. I think to have the idea really resonate, however, requires considerable skill. In Auster's case, I particularly liked how the stories abjured notions of identity, in particular the unforgettable (and rightfully unexplained) moment where the mighty Quinn witnesses two identical versions of the man he is set to follow.

Second, great books often convince me that as long as I find enough of them to read, I'll never lose the dream of someday writing of similar worth. I remember feeling the old itch to start writing even around 50 pages in, and by the end of it I imagined it was one of those stories written "for me", which I could imagine arising out of my consciousness, even if I might not be able to express the story as compellingly. Something about the way the characters were simultaneously lost, and yet almost walked into the pit willingly really resonated. (That's not necessarily a good thing, but I'll put it down to my lack of clear mental separation between what I feel and what I think others feel.) I've only read one more Auster (The Brooklyn Follies), which is good but not as good as this. Still, it also has these elements of chance, luck, and ponderings on fate that made the trilogy so compelling. If more of Auster's work is in the same vein, I might have found a new idol.

Number 2 for the year was probably Hemingway's For Whom The Bell Tolls: a great example of a book that I had been intending to read for a long time. Fortunately, the heightened expectations from the waiting were matched by the book's quality. I should note that I didn't really take all of it that seriously: yes, you wouldn't find a female character like Maria in a modern novel, but I forgive the novel because of the time it was written. Perhaps even for the time it was a little chauvinistic, but it's enough of a gray area for me to ignore it. I had heard a lot about the tight writing style of the book, which I initially imagined might make it quite pedestrian, even banal. But, it turns out that Hemingway is more talented than I am, because he uses the style to complement the sections where we hear the characters think, assessing and reassessing situations. An interesting way to relate to characters: my poor book-memory can't recall a similar device put to such effective use. The other plus in the writing is that it is extremely readable, probably because it is fairly heavy in dialogue. And finally, it all works towards that"hell of an ending", as McCain put it.

I was very disappointed with Murakami's Norwegian Wood, one of those books I'd meant to read for at least a couple of years; I was so focussed on finally getting my hands on it that I didn't even consider the possibility that I would actively dislike it. The style is fine, actually - it is absolutely distinctive, and it's the sort of thing that one can imagine being really engaging. Alas, only "imagine", because the story itself I found rather irritating. Toru's constant "trysts" might be seen as normal, given the time the story is set in. You could make a case for it, but I still found it quite distasteful. Instead of being sensual (which I could understand), it came across as just lascivious; I was especially fed up with the events of the last few pages. Like I said, though, the writing style is interesting, so once I've managed to put aside my disappointment, I might try the Wind Up Bird Chronicle.

It took a surprising amount of perseverance to get through a Huxley book I hadn't previously read - Time Must Have A Stop. I felt I pretty much have to, given that I was thinking a lot about time at one point during the year, and was eager to find anything that resolved the olde quote: And time, that takes survey of all the world / Must have a stop. "Must" - the "must" of one who knows, not one who hopes (I think the book brings this up towards the end). I don't have a lot to say about the book, except that I am glad to report that, on the whole, I liked it. I was worried that I would find Huxley's style positively callow, because the "me" who liked his books four or five years ago was very easily impressed. I initially did find myself cringing a little - the classic Huxley signposts like casual discussions about art at the dinner table, for example - but this passed. I think that Huxley's writings are still instructive because, while he sometimes does let the ideas get in the way of the novel, these ideas are still pretty interesting. They aren't just adolescent mysticism, because they are consciously about the interplay of art and science. The issues he deals with still haven't been answered, really; and while his personal views might not be novel, I can't deny that I still find reading his little essays-masquerading-as-novels quite enjoyable. Phew! One idol still intact. If I ever have the strength to go back to Hesse, I hope I can say the same thing!

I'll stop here, I think; while I did actually read a bit more than the above list might suggest, few of the other books had a particularly strong impact on me. All "good", but I have trouble enough writing about books I really like. Predictions for 2009? With the discovery of a nice little bookstore near where I live, I'll probably end up reading more semi-modern books; Updike, anyone? And while this is a little bold, I think I'll end up nominating Cat's Cradle to be my favourite book of the year. Were I a baser man, I would've cheated and included it on this list. But as proud defender of the sacred traditions of the retrospective, I shall wait for the next year to arrive, and see what competition Bokonon might face.

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