Wednesday, November 28, 2012

His Books of the Year

This is the part of a books of the year entry you don’t read because you’re scanning to find the titles this writer has chosen. You haven't noticed his name but you'll check it once your own good judgement has been confirmed.

The first is Karl O. Knausgaard’s My Struggle, a popular one this year – you’ve registered the title already because he was chosen in that other list in that other place by that other guy – who was it? Visceral realism blah scandal in Norway blah full of profound insights blah. Oh look, there are the names of Marcel Proust and Thomas Bernhard again, the authors Knausgaard is already being compared to, neither of which you’ve read, though you keep meaning to. It makes you feel alienated and demoralised. Look, there are so many translations and editions of Proust to choose from. What was the title again? And which Thomas Bernhard novel is a good place to start?

You see there are still three paragraphs to go and you’re thinking: enough with the summaries already! You relax a little because the next choice is Enrique Vila-Matas’ Dublinesque. The title is so warm and attractive. You see that it’s set around Bloomsday, which is something you’ve wanted to attend for years. Admittedly, you tried and failed to read Ulysses for a university course, but you prefer Radio 4’s dramatisation because it cut through all the verbiage and made the book accessible. Anyway, the novel is about Dublin isn’t it? That should be enough. You had a city break there a few years back and had such a good time in the pubs. Everyone is so friendly! But what’s that he’s saying? It’s about the end of the Gutenberg Era, the end of literature as we know it? What nonsense: has he seen my shelf of Ian Rankin first editions?

You skip the third paragraph because he’s chosen Quentin Meillassoux’s The Number and the Siren, a book by a French philosopher about a French poet Stéphane Mallarmé, specifically his poem Un Coup de Dés, which you’ve never heard of let alone read. It’s in French! What if it is a revelation and not what you might expect – a momentous study of the place and meaning of poetry in post-religious society? That’s just pretentious.

The final paragraph intrigues you and is the only one that you read in full because it is the shortest and the chooser is obviously passionate about Infinity: The Story of a Moment, Gabriel Josipovici’s novel based on the life of a real composer. That sounds more your kind of thing: you like biographies.


  1. I love Ian Rankin, as does my friend, the author Brian Evenson.

    And on your recommendation I just bought Infinity.

  2. Do tell me/us what you think of Infinity. It's one of my favourites over many years, not just this.

    I have doctrinal problems with crime novels – well, all genre in fact. In 1989 I hesitated to buy Handke's Across because the blurb emphasised a murder. But I did buy it and of course the murder is only incidental. The copy was a Methuen paperback priced at £3.95! For some reason, the first line was a revelation.

  3. The brilliance of Knausgård and the brilliance of Rankin. A man in my line of thinking!!! Long live literature! Handke's "Chinese des Schmerzes" something else altogether again.,.. But, for crying out loud, what is Vila-Matas doing in any great literary communion???

  4. Falkenburger, the Rankin line in my blog needs to be in a heavily sarcastic font.

  5. That first sentence of Across (The Chinese of Pain is the literal translation of the title) has always been wonderfully troubling to me. Close your eyes, and out of the darkness of the letters come the lights of the city . . . something like that.

    Okay, I too missed the Ian Rankin sarcasm.

    I'm an omnivorous reader, reading crime novels late at night or in the bath -- my alternative to TV. And I make no apologies.

    When I wrote about Brian Evenson's work for Open Letters Monthly, I highlighted several books and stories that use the mystery genre to get at epistemological questions. Here's an excerpt:

    The stories in Windeye, Evenson’s new collection, repeatedly address archeological and teleological questions. “Knowledge,” for instance, is a description of “precisely why I have still not written my detective novel.” Mysteries work within a set of assumptions that all crimes are scrutable and that clues will lead inevitably to the criminal. Attempts to solve the case presented in this story, however, require the investigator to make assumptions about the nature of reality that “end up derailing the genre.” In Windeye’s “The Moldau Affair,” to cite a second example, a detective finds it impossible to break out of the logical circles imposed by the circumstances: “Yet, how to know if the logic I think I am following is not in itself its own trap, a distortion of reality prone to do me more harm than good—just as Stratton’s logic was a trap for him?” The detective assumes his report will do more good than harm. Readers are left to question his optimism.

    And Handke's first translated novel, The Goalie's Anxiety, is generically a crime novel. Because it too is about epistemological questions, especially as related closely to language, the clues prove to be as indeterminate as the semiotic problem a goalie faces. The murderer breathes easier at one point when he compares the signs on a map to the area he is overlooking and finds they don't correspond as exactly as he feared (because if there is indeed a perfect correspondence between signifier and signified, then he is facing certain (and generic) capture.

  6. Scott, I don't know anymore if it's obvious that this post was almost entirely a bit of fun; a joke. The books mentioned are my favourites of the year for sure, although it doesn't include Leslie Hill's new book on Blanchot because it didn't fit my purpose to write this as a send-up of books of the year lists; that is, written from the point of view of someone – the typical English philistine cynic – reading and responding to it.

    One of my problems with genre – and hence the Rankin reference – is that what ever arguments one makes for it as literature, the outcome is invariably to encourage the focus *on* the genre, so that its features becomes the crucial aspect of a book. Writing is the only true feature. Genre is essentially a marketing device, extending to allying entertainments to Borges' Death and the Compass or indeed Handke's Goalie's Anxiety because these too feature crimes. In an interview I quoted on this blog six years ago, Rankin seemed to assume that "writing about what's happening in our society" means his novels are literature, albeit popular literature – "nothing wrong with being popular" he said, emphasising again the key things to him are genre and popularity, with social commentary as a sop to *seriousness*. Like most Britons, the real thing means absolutely nothing to them. Handke, if they've heard of him at all, is that guy who wrote a book about football; an entire career boiled down to one funny title. I haven't read it.



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