Monday, December 24, 2007

Year in Reading

This year has been quite good reading-wise. I read so many Great Books and I also managed to blog a lot (for whatever it was worth). I was thinking of making a top 10 list when I was starting but instead I think what I finally came up with was a list of all the books I read this year. I will not link to my old posts (feeling too lazy and also too self-conscious) but needless to say, I am glad I spent so much time in the company of these books and the great minds who wrote them.

Robert Musil: The Man Without Qualities, The Confusions of Young Torless I spent most the year feeling like Ulrich and Torless - serenely disengaged from "reality", on a kind of "vacation from life" of my own. It is rare that you come across a book at just the right point of time which taps into something deeply private happening inside you and these two books did just that.

Thomas Bernhard: Extinction, Woodcutters, Old Masters Another Austrian master - great lessons on how to live a life by a negative principle. Plus Old Masters gave me more number of laughs than any other book this year.

Italo Svevo: Zeno's Conscience A very funny portrait of a man struggling under the weight of the terrible burden of his own self-consciousness.

Alberto Moravia: Contempt, Conjugal Love Another Italian charting the same "burden of consciousness" territory. I specially loved Contempt, an almost horror-story about the sudden death of love. It is actually very different from the Godard film, which is of course great as well.

The Book of Disquiet: Fernando Pessoa More self-consciousnes, refusal (or failure?) to act and participate in the world. If listening to the voices inside your head is your idea of a good evening pastime, this is the book for you.

Imre Kertesz: Kaddish for an Unborn Child, Liquidation Two relentlessly bleak and experimental short works from the Hungarian nobel laureate. My only complaint was that the books were too short.

Ingeborg Bachmann: Malina, The Requiem for Fanny Goldman, The Book of Franza More Austrian bleakness, this time with a feminist twist. Malina specially was fascinating and very strange. I had trouble getting into it in the beginning, both because of the extremity of its vision and also its radically experimental style but reading a few reviews and essays made me see what was really going on inside the book.

Arthur Schnitzler: Selected Works More death, madness and sex from another Austrain great. My favourite of all his short narratives was the extraordinary "Fraulein Else", an account of a nervous breakdown of a young girl told entirely in one unbroken internal monologue sustained over more than a hundred pages. "Lieutenant Gustl" is written in a similar style and much shorter though no less dark. Reading "Dream Story" also made me realize what a ridiculous disaster Kubrick's last film Eyes Wide Shut really is, which is based on this story.

Heinrich von Kleist: Selected Works The Marquise of O., Michael Kohlhaas and The Earthquake in Chile - all dark fairy tales (sort of) and very well-told.

Georg Buchner: Selected Works More madness from Germany. Woyzeck is probably my favourite of all modern plays. Lenz is another great narrative about a mind going to pieces.

Joseph Roth: Selected Works Joseph Roth's dark, death-obsessed masterpiece "The Radetzky March" was one of my favourite books of last year. This year I read a few of his shorter works and found the same profoundly melancholic sensibility in these as well, though on a much smaller scale. My favourite of all was "Rebellion" and the short story "The Emperor's Tomb". Michael Haneke's TV adapation of Rebellion was magnificent too.

Frank Wedekind: Selected Works More madness, suicides and all-around mayhem in these plays by Wedekind. His play Spring Awakening has suddenly become very famous because of the musical which won many awards this year. I saw G W Pabst's Pandora's Box this year too, which is tame as well, as compared to the play but a great classic nevertheless. Now if only I can find an English translation of the short story which was the basis of the sensational French film "Innocence" directed by Lucille H.

Rainer Maria Rilke: The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge More gloom and death-obsessed thoughts. It is not the good, authentic and personal life, it is actually a good, authentic and personal death that one should strive and hope for. I probably have to read it again sometime. Parts of it went above my head and I wasn't able to concentrate.

Jens Peter Jacobsen: Niels Lyhne More gloom, heartbreak and assorted musings on the subject of the utter futility of life, love and other human endeavours, only this time it is from Denmark. It will make a good double bill with The Sorrows of Young Werther.

Shchedrin: The Golovyov Family The Russian gloom is probably my own personal favourite. The Golovyov Family is a very good example of this unique type.

Juan Goytisolo: Count Julian A poisoned hate letter to Spain written with an extraodinary exuberance and style.

Enrique Vila-Matas: Montano's Malady Literature-sickness.

Javier Marias: All Souls, Dark Back of Time: Two very clever books about, hmmm, I can't really say, but very entertaining nevertheless both of them.

The Hothouse: Wolfgang Koeppen Yet another gloomy book about a lost soul in the post-war Germany.

Ivan Turgenev: Selected Works A lot of heartbreak and a lot of politics as well. I read Rudin, On the Eve and Virgin Soil this year. All were great though somewhat conventional.

Tadeusz Borowski: This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen So much self-disgust and rage against the will to live. It didn't make any sense to me reading it as an autonomous piece of literary work but as a portrait of a sensitive mind struggling and failing to come to terms with holocaust it is unlike anything I have read. Czeslaw Milosz's The Captive Mind has a portrait of Borowski too though he gives his suicide a political interpretation.

Laszlo Krasznahorkai: War and War A disappointment, specially as compared to his masterpiece The Melancholy of Resistance, but the bleak humour and some of the long sentences (every chapter in the book is one sentence) were really good.

Stanislaw Lem: Solaris Read it again this year. This time keeping in mind that all the mumbo-jumbo is actually meant to be read as a parody.

Gunter Grass: Crabwalk Readable and quite interesting in its analysis of the legacy of German crimes in the second world war.

Graham Greene: The End of the Affair, The Third Man I prefer the movies, both of which are my favourites.

Next year I plan to read more poetry and a bit more systematically. Collected Poems with notes and introductions and so on. This year I did spend some time reading the following poets:

Chales Baudelaire: The Flowes of Evil and Other Selected Poems

Pier Paolo Pasolini: Selected Poems

A E Housman: Selected Poems including The Shropshire Lad. I also read bits and pieces of Tom Stoppard's play The Invention of Love. More on this later.

Rilke: Duino Elegies & Selected Poems (The essays and notes were very helpful)


May be it was because of the same feeling of complete disengagment, I didn't feel like reading too much non-fiction this year. Most of the time I was looking for good reviews, essays and secondary literature about the fiction books I read. Still some highlights:

Ruth Kluger: Still Alive Ruth Kluger's memoir is easily the standout book of the year, probably the finest book on Holocaust that I have read so far. It is far from a conventional memoir, it is less about the events and the history and more about how to think about what really happened. She writes about her childhood in Vienna, then life in Auschwitz with her mother and then her struggle to start a new life again in America. What makes this story so different is the way she keeps trying to question the ways to think, write and remember the traumas of the past. The highlight of the book though is the unsentimental, frankly bizarre, portrait of a mother-daughter relationship. This book was actually published in German in the early nineties but the English translation (actually a rewriting by the author herself) came only after many years because she had agreed to not publish it in English as long as her mother was alive because she was so furious by what her daughter had written about her in the book.

I actually spent a lot of time early this year reading about the Holocaust. Hannah Arendt's Eichmann in Jerusalem is a classic work of reportage and history. The German critic Marcel Reich-Ranicki's memoir The Author of Himself is brilliant in the first half in which he talks about the artistic scene in Germany just before the Nazis took over and then the life in the Warsaw ghetto. The latter section in which he talks about the German authors and his life as a critic is a little disappointing though still entertaining - it reads more like a gossipy column. He never really gets down to questioning his relationship, as a Polish Jew and a Holocaust survivor, with the German culture and literature, at least not beyond the obvious platitudes. Ron Rosenbaum's Explaining Hitler is a handy guide for navigating the minefield of Holocaust historiography though very annoying in its journalistic style and repetition. Better overviews are found in Peter Novick's Holocaust in American Life about the political uses of Holocaust in Amercian politics, specially in its relationship with Israel and The Hitler of History by John Lukacs which is a very solid philosophical overview of the subject. I read the abridged version of Raul Hilberg's The Destruction of European Jews too, which was a little too nuts-and-boltish for me and also his memoir The Politics of Memory. A lot of bitterness, not that much towards Germany, as much as because of the troubles he had to face to get his book published and politically motivated criticisms levelled against him.

Wittgenstein's Vienna by Janik and Toulmin offered a fascinating overview of the intellectual world of turn of century Vienna. I tried reading the biography of Wittgenstein too but couldn't get much further. Rudiger Safranski's excellent biography of Heidegger suffered the same fate. I will surely take up both of them in the next year.

Milan Kundera's essay on the history of European novel The Curtain was enlightening though it left me hankering for more than just clever metaphors and turns of phrases.


Madhuri said...

Must say that looks like a long and intimidating list. I haven't come across most of the authors there. And the ones I have, are becoming too difficult to find. Bernhard for example - Landmark does not even have that author listing! I suppose I should move out of India simply to get better access to better books :-)

Alok said...

you must have crossed the 50-book mark too i think!

I am yet to read many well-known and more easily available writers. I have just started from the comparatively more obscure ones... :)

though I think it is sad that writers like Bernhard, Moravia or Schnitzler are not so widely known or read. Even here you will be able to find these only through libraries or else order online.

Madhuri said...

Yes, have finished the 50 - but at the price of leaving Ulysses in between. Hope to finish that in the next year. Along with the Magic Mountain!

Alok said...

how about a best of the year list on the blog?

Litfink said...

Poetic-Docent Dr. Michael Gratz, german university-Greifswald, onliney-paper for poetry, just deals with your reading, Alok, as follows.
No 107, A poly-Reader, named Alok, living in India, being a Gourmand of books. His Blog "Dispatches from Zembla", Alok giving the very essence of his reading of 2007, crossing the global Literature, a queery running.
Living in northern Germany, I enjoyed your sum-up, Alok. The net is the very water to meet multi-colored fishes. In California a high school girl, I got by chance, her name. Wendy Shuttel, a sparkling touch for me. We e-mailed. She is an artist, now named "SPRINGER", - (said of a young little dog doing jumps elder one dislike to produce).
I send you a flash of light, Alok. with some lines I wrote to Springer.
wishing a SWEET THURSDAY (John Steinbeck)
Wilhelm Fink, Hamburg,
we will watch the magic ways, - smile!
The way you start, Springer,
please have a look to the great river of Egypt
blue and white together, - and here we are
two twins in the Nile. fishes with the very eye
to watch in sisterhood, the moment
before swimming away - the encounter
she an he who want to meet
but not to stay together
the magic way - to be united in distance
both "only-once-present"
My lines - to say good bye
swimming nearer
writing I will open
things laying silent and flat
I add power to the resting drive
freshness and whirls in the flood
quick turning of the body
to say HELLO
means recognizing
to say Good bye
the position, snapping,
of the head,
to get the wanted meal
and, going faster, the blinking for You,
sister-fish and eye of the very moment
looking just
and swimm apart
* * * *

Alok said...

thanks for the mention on the blog. I don't know German so thanks for translating it for me too.