I started the Tredynas Days blog in April this year, since when I’ve written about most of the books I’ve been reading and found worth posting about. In the spirit of all those end-of-year lists that are everywhere at the moment, here are some highlights of my reading in the first four months of the year:
Kevin Jackson: Invisible Forms (Thomas Dunne Books, St Martin’s Press: New York 2000; first published UK 1999)
Essays on books’ titles, prefaces, dedications, footnotes, indexes, blurbs, epigraphs, acknowledgements, first lines, marginalia (with examples from KJ himself!), and so on. Witty, beguiling, informative and enormous fun.
Inspired by Isaac d’Israeli, father of Benjamin, and his Curiosities of Literature, first published in 1791, and reprinted many times subsequently – also full of anecdotal literary ramblings.
David Foster Wallace, Oblivion (Abacus, 2012; first published in the UK 2004)
Short stories: some weirdly brilliant (‘Mister Squishy’; ‘The Soul is not a Smithy’); others are a little too clever and contrived (‘Another Pioneer’) or inconsequential (‘The Suffering Channel’ is like a cannon deployed to shoot a wren). But they are all beautifully crafted and showcase DFW’s astonishing range of voices, registers and styles. He can also be wickedly funny (‘Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature’).
I bought this after hearing readings from it on BBC Radio 4’s ‘Book of the Week’: wise, perceptive, lucidly written case histories by a humane, sensitive psychotherapist who composes each miniature story with a literary sensibility. I found them deeply moving. His quotation from Karen Blixen reveals his theme: ‘All sorrows can be borne if you put them in a story or tell a story about them.’
Alice Munro, Dear Life (Chatto and Windus, London: 2012)
Her Nobel Prize for Literature award this year was merited. This collection is maybe not her best, but still full of her customary insight into the human condition. The last four pieces, unusually for her, are partially autobiographical. At times a bit dour, but never dull; many have sufficient depth and breadth for a full-length novel, but Munro manages to compress the material into twenty or so pages.
Sam Riviere, 81 Austerities (Faber, 2012)
Another purchase inspired by a radio programme, this time Ian McMillan’s consistently engaging Radio 3 show ‘The Verb’. I heard him interview Sam R, who also read some of these poems. His poetic voice is unique and original. He manages to sound colloquial, spontaneous and yet mysterious – even metaphysical – while avoiding pretension (most of the time, as Mr Dylan would say).
A peculiar book that doesn’t fit neatly into any single genre. Its four sections are narrated like a loosely structured or fragmentary novel by a woman recently widowed; she writes on four themes – Time, Edge, Forms on Offer and Reflection – using, she says, notes left by her deceased academic husband. There are illustrations throughout the text, and a sequence at the end, many involving Oliver Twist. There’s dazzling wordplay and exegesis of numerous literary texts. Innovative, daring, not entirely satisfactory, but fascinating. I read it on the long return train trip to Suffolk to visit my sister on the anniversary of her husband’s sudden, unexpected and untimely death, which added a layer of poignancy to the experience.
Knut Hamsun, Hunger (Canongate, 2001; first published 1890 in Norway)
This is one of those books that’s been on my TBR pile for ages; I’m so glad I eventually got round to reading it. It’s one of the strangest, most haunting novels I’ve ever encountered. It’s quirkier and more experimentally modernist and strangely bleak than Joyce, Kafka and Beckett, who often deal with similar themes and with similar acerbic starkness or stylistic invention, but who came some decades later. Awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1920, Hamsun became an advocate of fascism in later years. Strange how many writers and artists espouse unpleasant causes and display characteristics that are dissonant with their works.
Among the other novels I read Jan-April was Kevin Powers, The Yellow Birds (2012), written in a stripped-down Hemingway-esque prose style with lyrical interludes more like Denis Johnson: raw, visceral accounts of hollowed-out men at war in whom all humanity has gone awol. John Self on his Asylum blog has eloquently championed the cause of Hawthorn & Child, by Keith Ridgway (2012), so I won’t reinvent the wheel here: the strangest detective novel you’ll ever read. It’s a sort of post-modern riff on the impossibility of interpreting ‘plot’. Funny, baffling, brilliant.
Omitted here are several titles by Robert Walser among others, about whom I hope to post next year. Happy Christmas (or happy winter holidays if you’re in the USA) and have a great 2014.