This is my effort to track my book-reading over the course of the year.
#1 Bedsit Disco Queen by Tracey Thorn (2013)
Enjoyable memoir from one half of the pop act, Everything But the Girl. Probably the most surprising part is how much Thorn claims the values of punk informed the approach to her musical career. I suppose the key is values, rather than any sonic principles, and Thorn lays out how she forged a career as a woman in the music industry without too much by way of sacrifice and compromise. Deals well with the lived realities of success, then failure, and then a second, even bigger, taste of success.
#2 Aaron’s Rod by D H Lawrence (1922)
The first Lawrence novel I have read, and in parts it was extremely impressive. This novel is not hugely acclaimed by critics, partly because it can fairly be accused of being ‘a lot of disconnected scenes of people talking’, but the intensity of the conversations and the depictions of particular situations and places was jaw-dropping. For example, the section of the novel where Lilly nurses Sisson back to health was beautiful, and, given the social mores of the time, artistically courageous to depict. There is also an impressive section where Sisson reflects upon the dynamics of his relationship with his wife, full of acute insight into the life of human feelings. The latter parts of the novel, set in Italy, are far more evocative of that country than anything E M Forster managed in Where Angels Fear to Tread (1905). What this novel possesses, at its best, is an unusual vitality. In its weaker moments, it becomes more interesting simply as a period piece, in its worst moments, it regurgitates some species of Nietzchean thought.
#3 Labels by Evelyn Waugh (1930)
Waugh’s first travel book saw him visit a selection of foreign places that were already well-fixed in the English imagination, Paris, Monte Carlo, Barcelona, Venice, etc., and consider whether the reality matched the image (the labels). Waugh makes the journey in the same mode as tourists, and draws a similar distinction to that of Paul Fussell between three ages of travel (that both efface and overlap one another to an extent) – exploration, travel, tourism. Thus, Waugh takes off on a cruise on a Norwegian steamer, the Stella Polaris, around the Mediterranean, making it as far east as Port Said.
Considering Waugh was only 27 at the time of publication, Labels is astonishingly self-assured and his inimitable style is already well-developed, with a fine eye for comedy (and less of an ear).
#4 Tristessa by Jack Kerouac (1960)
A groggy novella, centred on Tristessa, a morphine-addicted native of Mexico City, and told in two parts, the story resuming after the narrator, who is supplied with aspects of Kerouac’s biography, returns to Mexico City after a year or more tramping around the US with his beat pals. The action, such as it is, is unremarkable, while the style is a heap of first impressions that appear to have undergone little revision. There was only a single moment of self-reflection in the whole novel, one moment where the narrator grasped, for a second, the absurdity of himself, as a lost white man, setting himself up as the teacher/savior of Tristessa, a woman who already knows, deeply, everything that he does (but doesn’t form it into annoying Buddhist-Christian babble). A very bad novel.
#5 A Single Man by Christopher Isherwood (1964)
If we return to Kerouac for a moment, the big claim, recycled in endless accounts of The Beat Generation, is that Burroughs, Ginsberg and Kerouac were doing something radical, challenging a literary scene that was moribund/had lost its way. While that may be partly true of the early Beat works, Naked Lunch, Howl, On the Road, by the beginning of the 1960s it was no longer the case. In every respect, A Single Man is more accomplished, more modern, more insightful than Kerouac’s contemporaneous work, which has dated extremely badly.
The two things I would note about this novel are its attention to processes, in contrast with events (which are being effaced, largely, by the former). The start of the novel begins with its central character decentred, and becoming a complete human being only by degrees, finally achieving personhood as he unites with his job title, professor, at the Californian university he teaches at. In this, it’s rather similar, though greatly extended, to the opening of Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway, where we begin with the central character referred to firstly via her marriage (social identity), and then as Clarissa Dalloway when she thinks (personal identity), etc. The event that has rendered all of the processes more visible is the sudden, senseless death in an auto accident of the narrator’s partner, while, at the end of the novel, process and event merge with the narrator dying in their sleep, the death rendered at the physiological level, senseless and inevitable.
The second point about this novel is that in its distancing from its central character, in its observation of processes and, particularly, of the changing urban environment (and the corresponding changes in human behavior), there is a similarity to the work of J G Ballard at times. The difference, though, is that Isherwood’s character is a full flesh-and-blood individual (with its pattern of all the action taking place in a single day, and its scatological moments, there’s a similarity between George and Joyce’s Bloom), whom we share intimacies with, whose thoughts are comprehensible, and traverse the full spectrum of emotions, from innocent joy to fantasies of extreme violence, rather than Ballard’s take, where the characters themselves become as featureless as concrete and as lacking in self-awareness as panes of glass.
A short novel of exceptional clarity and quality.
#6 Baghdad Sketches by Freya Stark (1938)
Travel writing from an independently-minded British woman, Freya Stark. Opens with a lament for how travel is now becoming tourism, even in the Iraqi desert, which now has its own road.
#7 The Labyrinth of Solitude by Octavio Paz (1961)
I reread this book for its references to masks and the Mexican take on death, both of which have relevance for a short story I am writing. Paz notes that, “The Mexican is always remote, from the world and from other people. And also from himself.” This prefaces his argument that for Mexicans, life is seen primarily as combat, with an emphasis on defense. On death, Paz distinguishes between an ancient attitude to death among Mexicans, and its effacement by a modern conception. This was important, because my initial thought had been to typify the fixation on death I witnessed in Mexico (a crowd of people watching silently as the TV news replayed, seemingly ad infinitum, a plane crash) as something ancient. But once I read the comment by Paz and checked the racial make-up of the Mexican town I am writing about (only 1% indigenous), I switched to presenting the modern take on death, while noting the intensity of the relationship.
#8 Norton Anthology of American Literature 1914-1945 (Vol D)
Notable stories in here are by Thomas Wolfe, The Lost Boy, a story worth comparing with Burroughs’ ‘The Dead Child’ chapter in The Soft Machine, D’Arcy McNickle’s Hard Riding, which bears comparison with a Jack London short story where a white man tricks the chief of a tribe into chopping off his head (can’t recall the story’s name), Black Elk’s vision, from where I took the term wasichus for use in a story about gypsies in the UK, and Willa Cather, The Sculptor’s Funeral, an extremely well-written and bitter story concerning the return of an artist’s body to the frontier town he was raised in.
#9 The Penguin Guide to Literature in English (2001)
Useful primarily for its periodization.
#10 Abroad by Paul Fussell (1980)
Endearingly fusty book of literary criticism that acts as a useful starting point for further investigation of a host of English travel writers, some of whom I was already familiar with, Denton Welch, J R Ackerley, E M Forster, Evelyn Waugh, Freya Stark, Robert Byron, D H Lawrence (Aaron’s Rod, The Italian trilogy, and Mornings in Mexico receive a chapter’s worth of attention), while some names were new to me, Norman Douglas, Lawrence Durrell, Patrick Leigh Fermor. An uneven, but still fascinating book, with plenty by way of amusing anecdotes, observations, and jokes.