Monday, December 25, 2006

Year in Books - Part 1 (Fiction)

Following is pretty much everything I read in fiction this year. There were few more which I left incomplete either disappointed or postponed for future. First section contains masterpieces (Five out of five stars) followed by good book and finally a list of disappointments though still interesting books.

The Melancholy of Resistance (Laszlo Krasznahorkai): This Hungarian novel will certainly be the book of the year for me. I was aware of the events described in the book and had read about Krasznahorkai's style (long, serpentine sentences, paragraph-less chapters and no dialogues only monologues, everything I look for in a novel these days by the way) but I was still startled by it -- by its vehemence, its depth and complexity of vision, its humour, the satirical skill and the seriousness of Krasznahorkai's intent. It is not an easy book to read (it took more than three weeks of dedicated reading) and the subject matter and conclusion couldn't be darker and bleaker, it is almost like a three hundred page illustration of the philosophy of nihilism but it was still exhilirating. It is also one of funniest novels I have read in a while. At more than a few occasions I had to sit upright, fold the book, had a good laugh and then get back to reading again.

Krasznahorkai is still more known in the anglophone world for his collaboration in Bela Tarr's film projects, though Tarr himself remains a highly obscure and marginal figure in the international art house cinema. But still if you search on the internet you will get to read a lot of the movie Werckmeister Harmonies but very little about the novel. The back cover of the novel rather proudly carries enthusiastic endorsements from such eminent personalities like W G Sebald ("its vision rivals that of Gogol's Dead Souls and far surpasses all the lesser concerns of contemporary writing") and Susan Sontag ("An inexorable, visionary book by the contemporary Hungarian master of apocalypse who inspires comparison with Gogol and Melville. Krasznahorkai’s novel is both an anatomy of desolation, desolation at its most appalling, and a stirring manual of resistance to desolation – through inwardness.") I also agree with Waggish's comment about Krasnahorkai's only other novel translated into English War And War which was published earlier this year. He says, "Krasznahorkai's achievement is to draw from the deepest, thorniest tradition of European novels, that of Musil, Bachmann, and Bernhard, and give it contemporary political relevance." The same can be said of this novel too. It eloquently reminds us of the grim political situation of the contemporary world, when the only choices that remain open to us are either the self-righteous fascism of Bush And Company on the one side and the anarchy and chaos of religious terrorists on the other. I really don't think I should add my own enthusiastic recommendation when such intelligent people have already done the same, but anyway I will urge you to read it, give this book the patience and effort it requires and you won't be disappointed. Krasznahorkai's official website is also worth browsing.


The Emigrants (W G Sebald): The Rings of Saturn was my favourite book of last year and this year it is The Emigrants. In between I have also managed to read Vertigo, Austerlitz and his two essay collections Campo Santo and Natural History of Destruction (so far as I could understand parts of it, unfamaliar as I am with most of modern German literature which is the subject of these essays). The Emigrants is I think my favourite book though The Rings of Saturn is perhaps the most ambitious and accomplished. It is an extremely painful book to read, the way Sebald plumbs the depths of unimaginable grief in his four "biographical" narratives about lives thwarted and wasted by arbitrary forces of history, I have never encoutered anything like it before.


The Loser, Wittgenstein's Nephew and Frost (Thomas Bernhard): I don't think I should bore my regular readers with more Bernhard enthusiasms. I am glad I discovered him this year. I am looking forward to reading his other books soon. If you have some doubts about how relentless pursuit of negativity can ever be meaningful you should get hold of some of his books.

The Radetzky March (Joseph Roth): Another death obsessed Austrian. The Radetzky March starts like a conventional nineteenth century realistic novel but you soon realize how everything that Roth describes in the book is filtered through his dark vision of history as a sequence of one destructive event after another. A dark masterpiece.

The Complete Short Novels (Anton Chekhov):
This was a collection of five short novels all around a hundred pages or so that I read early this year. The emotional terrain and the style is the same he uses in his stories but I found these longer works more interesting. I specially loved the first two novels, The Duel and The Steppe. Rest are also quite good. Wonderfully evocative writing about lives wasted by melancholy, thwarted ambitions and all kinds of quiet desperation.

Eugene Onegin (Alexander Pushkin):Eugene Onegin is notoriously hard to translate. It famously ended the decades long friendship of Nabokov and Edmund Wilson. Reading it is frustrating in a way because you never know whose voice it is that is coming through. But still the wit, the character portraits and the psychological insights make it more than just worth reading. And if you, like me, are old fashioned and illiterate enough to prefer poetry with rhyming stanzas you will love it even more.

The Possessed (Fyodor Dostoevsky): A dark masterpiece from the great Russian master. It also contains a lot of really hilarious caricatures and is quite funny.

A Hero Of Our Time (Mikhail Lermontov): It is almost like an illustration and sketch of a self-consciously Byronic type. After reading it and Onegin I felt so close to these two heroes. I felt like going to a duel too but alas, we live in such philistine and shameless age! There are no duels anymore!!

By Night in Chile (Roberto Bolano): I am eagerly waiting for Bolano's The Savage Detectives which is getting published in April. It won all the major prizes of the Spanish speaking world a few years ago and it should create lots of news here too. By Night in Chile is a brisk and breathless read, a fantastic tour through the grim recent history of Chile. It is also sad and ironical in a way that Pinochet managed to outlive Bolano. But there is at least no doubt who history will judge more favourably.

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Saturday (Ian McEwan): We all think about most of the same things as Henry Perowne but we never quite manage to find words and sentences like McEwan does for his protagonist. The novel suffers only when McEwan decides to turn into a regular novel by introducing a presposterous thriller element into the plot in the last act. He could have kept it essayistic and it still would have been a great success.

Embers (Sandor Marai): Another very good Hungarian novel with lots of wisdom about love, friendship and life, though I thought it perhaps suffered in translation because it was a little inconsistent in its style and the prose sounded flat, plain and feature-less at places.

Enduring Love (Ian McEwan): How far a scientific view of life can go to? Ian McEwan analyses brilliantly in this novel about love and obsession.

First Love/Spring Torrents (Ivan Turgenev):Bitter-sweet love stories from another Russian master. I loved both of these novellas.

The Real Life of Alejandro Mayta (Mario Vargas Llosa): A grim political novel set in author's home country Peru, a fantastic portrait of a Trostkyist revolutionary. It is sadder once you realize that Mayta is not just an individual and isolated figure but also a type and a template.

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Never let me go (Kazuo Ishiguro): Ishiguro is a great writer but sorry, this was mostly mills and boon stuff. Reading it I also felt as if he learnt all the science in it by reading B-Grade sci-fi books. It is just a bundle of sci-fi cliches. There are moments of authentic emotion but they are not enough to salvage it. It is still a good timepass though.

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (Muriel Spark):
Why is this book so famous? I found it so shallow and the writing was so plain!

Lust (Elfriede Jelinek): I feel bad about putting the only two women writers I read this year in the disappointment category but really I found this book to be written in an extremely cavalier style. She even mixes metaphors and in order to drive away cliches she drives away coherence too. I felt bad about it because I couldn't be more sympathetic to Jelinek's basic idea that Capitalism and Male Sexuality they both are dehumanising forces and they both work by commodifying human beings into property to be owned. But it really doesn't work at that level of feminist polemic either.

Solaris (Stanislaw Lem):
I read it in less than ideal circumstances so it may be that I missed something. I found it extremely boring and this from someone who is a big fan of the movie adaptations, both by Tarkovsky and Steven Soderbergh.

Amsterdam (Ian McEwan): How did it win the booker?

Some Hindi Books: I had gone home to Patna in the summer and read some hindi books there. I wrote about some of them here. I wanted to write about some more hindi books but couldn't do it. It is so difficult to find the contextual information about hindi literature if you are away from the cowbelt (and even there it is actually very difficult) which is needed to fully understand any work. I hope more educated and informed readers would add more resources to websites like wikipedia and make it more easily avaialable to other people interested. Phanishwar Nath Renu's entry on the wikipedia for example has some information about him, I added and corrected a few things too. Will try to find something to write about later.

15 comments:

Cheshire Cat said...

So many raves about Krasznahorkai, I should get "The Melancholy of Resistance". From what I've read by him and about him, he seems a writer out of his time, uncomfortable in the modern world... The Hapsburgs after World War I, or 2006 - always something is going out of fashion, something is collapsing.

You should give Spark another try - she's a writer of great wit and originality. A book like "Memento Mori" fits perfectly with your preoccupations as described in the last post...

Alok said...

I was extremely impressed by melancholy of resistance. The way he connects his extreme political pessimism with dense philosophical ideas about nihilism, Godlessness and anarchy is absolutely riveting. It is also I think, besides the things you mentioned, a violently allegorical tale about the recent history of eastern europe and russia...how the collapse of communism and the onset of capitalism meant loot and anarchy rather than freedom and stability for most of the people... how decades of forced collectivization perverted how people see themselves and the state. Satantango (the movie) is also about the same thing more or less. I hope someone is working to bring it in English too.

Memento Mori sounds good. Will check out. I am planning to read more women writers in the new year :) Actually Jean Brodie was also interesting though perhaps I think I was expecting something different...

Vidya said...

Thanks for the Laszlo K official website link.Loved the Gone berserk in paradise pdf there.

Alok said...

Oh I haven't seen it myself yet. let me check.

Cheshire Cat said...

I am baffled by how violently anti-capitalistic most writers and intellectuals tend to be, despite the lessons of history. Writers, at least, have no more than a diagnostic responsibility, and indeed they pretend to nothing more; the "intellectuals" have a lot to answer for...

Neither do I read women novelists much (but parity does pertain to the situation in poetry). The darkest novel I have ever read is Janet Frame's "Yellow Flowers in an Antipodean Room"; Beckett and Bernhard brim with positivity, in comparison.

And I have new-formed designs on the work of Magdalena Tulli.

Alok said...

He isn't really an anti-capitalist. He is more of a conservative in the older, classical sense -- that of Edmund Burke, Hobbes, even Kafka and Dostoevsky if you think of literature. But he gives his conservatism a tragic and pessimistic spin. God is long dead and human beings can't do without authority, disorder and chaos are the natural conditions of the world, revolution and nihilistic destruction are one and the same etc etc..

I haven't heard of these two writers that you mention. I have got Ingeborg Bachmann's Malina, another Austrian, on my next to-read list. I have to read Virginia Woolf too. I have read only Mrs Dalloway that too without understanding much and long back.

Antonia said...

hi alok - as I was reading your list I thought one Bernhard a year is a good New Year's Resolution...
I agree Janet Frame is really quite gloomy, read her Owls book some years ago.
Malina also hasn't such an enjoyable outlook on life. Virginia Woolf entirely different....

Antonia said...

correction, Virginia Woolf's style is entirely different, gloom factor varies...

Cheshire Cat said...

I have a friend who swears by Bachmann, I haven't read her though. And you surely can't go wrong with Woolf, as long as you stay away from her biography of Elizabeth Barrett Browning's dog...

Cheshire Cat said...

Oh, and many thanks for the link to the list at ReadySteadyBook. Some intriguing writers there who I can't remember having heard of before: Peter Larkin, Cesar Aira. And it's wonderful, and wonderfully appropriate, that Julian Rios is such a huge fan of the work of G.V.Desani.

Alok said...

Hehe, I didn't know Woolf had written a biography of a dog. sounds wonderful though :)

bhupinder briefly mentioned Cesar Aira too on his blog a few days ago. I hadn't heard of him before...

I have heard so much about All About H. Hatter book but I have never seen a copy anywhere!

antonia, I am taking a reading break for this year and going to start with bachmann and woolf in the new year. will ask you if i need any help :)

Antonia said...

I entirely agree with cheshire on the dogbiography by Woolf...but the one on Roger Fry is really worth reading. Bachmann is good, but according to my experience she is such an either love it or hate it author...I'm just saying....
cheshire you're a complete book bezerk

mr waggish said...

Oh wow, great stuff here. Thanks for the link. I also just posted on Aira over at waggish. Good, not great. I agree on Krasznahorkai's conservatism, but it's a conservatism that grows out of post-Communism post-central planning pessimism, not any sort of western conservatism. (Though after 7 years of this radical Bush, they may be converging!) I also adore Bachmann, and recommend starting with the collection "Three Paths to the Lake" as the easiest way into her work.

Alok said...

Hi Waggish, Glad to see you here. I have followed your blog and archives with great enthusiasm and admiration. In fact most of my google searches about the writers (Musil, Bachmann etc) I have been reading in the past year invariably make me land up in your blog!

I have read Malina and found it extremely baffling and after reading a few bits and pieces from elsewhere rewarding too. I do plan to read some of her other works. Thanks for the suggestion, will look it up.

Ankita said...

I too, thought the same of Amsterdam by Ian McEwan... How?