Books Read During 2009

1 01 2010

I did a good amount of reading this year, or at least, it seemed that way to me because I don’t think I have ever done so much reading for pleasure. I have read many books before, but most of them have been for my various school courses. And even though you could make the argument that — since I chose a book-intensive college education — even my course readings were for pleasure or at least by choice, the truth is that this is the first year where I read a good amount of material sans the motivation of an upcoming test. One thing to note, though: since I was preparing an entrance exam for my Journalism Master, I did a heavy amount of reading that is not reflected here — newspapers, online journals, and the such. Anyways:

The Lucid Camera by Roland Barthes
The Pleasure of the Text and Inaugural Lecture by Roland Barthes
The Tunnel by Ernesto Sabato
On Heroes and Tombs by Ernesto Sabato
The Exterminating Angel by Ernesto Sabato

Hopscotch by Julio Cortazar
Universal History of Infamy by Jorge Luis Borges
History of Eternity by Jorge Luis Borges
The Invention of Morel by Adolfo Bioy Casares
Pale Fire by Vladimir Nabokov

2666 by Roberto Bolaño
Nocturne of Chile by Roberto Bolaño
Distant Star by Roberto Bolaño
Waiting for Godot by Samuel Beckett
The Fascist Argentina by Federico Finchelstein

The Blue Book by Ludwig Wittgenstein
The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde
Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid in the World by Chris Ware
Paul Auster: City of Glass by Paul Karasik and David Mazzucchelli
Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino

I would also like to point out the books I only read in part, and are thus on-going, but which nevertheless occupy a space in last year’s readings. These are:

To Play (The Light of Something Else) by Rodrigo Tarruella
Poetics of Cinema by Raul Ruiz
Image-Movement by Gilles Deleuze
The Fold by Gilles Deleuze
The Stories of Vladimir Nabokov by Vladimir Nabokov

Fictions by Jorge Luis Borges
Fervor of Buenos Aires by Jorge Luis Borges
Peronism: Political Philosophy of an Argentine Obstinacy by Jose Pablo Feinmann
Discussion by Jorge Luis Borges
Pedro Paramo by Juan Rulfo

The Bitter Wonder of Being Argentine by Marcos Aguinis

Except for the last two books, all of the above — and that means both partial readings and whole readings — are first-time perusals. There is obviously a lot of Argentine stuff in there, which is the overarching theme of this listing. I was going to attempt an order of preference, but which such varied and disparate topics, it’s difficult to really compare. There is also a lot of Borges, especially in the partial readings section. That is because, if we want to be technical about it, I really only have one book by Borges, and that is Complete Works I, which combines most of the books I mention above and a few more I haven’t even flipped through, of which Evaristo Carriego seems most interesting. My method — which I think best for this type of collection, and especially for the fragmentary short-form-happy Borges — is to wander around the book and read an article, short-story, or essay as my gut wills it. This is fun. It’s like an adventure of sorts. You never know where you’ll fall. And Borges, being a reader himself, becomes a fellow traveler rather than a narrator. That is, even when he’s writing, he’s actually still reading, except in such a way that we can follow along with him: read his essays, something like Narrative Art and Magic, and it’s like overhearing a friend commenting on his latest literary discoveries; read one of his short stories, and it’s exactly the same feeling, save with fictional works rather than real ones like Narrative of A. Gordon Pym. Of course, the idea is that, after you jump back and forth between his essays and his stories enough times, you begin to realize that it doesn’t really matter when he’s making up the book and when the book actually exists, because the story being told in either case is the reader’s immersion into literature. Another important thing about Borges: he simply tells complicated premises. His labyrinths are not at the level of the telling, but at the level of the overlying premise, a complete picture of which is often not readily visible until the final sentence. Borges’ stories begin to grow and gain meaning after we finished them. While reading his stories, you might find yourself bored or unengaged. It’s when you put them down, or come back to them, or allow them to grow in your brain, that the story begins to deepen. Borges tells his tales until the outline of his premise is acceptably complete and then he lets his premise live its own life as it may inside our dreams. That’s why he never wrote a novel or a long-form work. What he was doing was dependent on brevity.

Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities is, perhaps, something like the novel Borges might have written. It is more or less a collection of short stories, gathered around the conceit of Marco Polo and Kublai Khan chatting with each other about fantastical places. Calvino, unlike Borges, is quite willing to imbue his fantastical visions with real-world topicality, often to blunt effect. The city of Leonia refashions itself every day by discarding yesterday’s objects in favor of today’s newly opened facsimiles. Each year, the city expands, so the accumulated waste of all those discarded objects, waiting outside the city’s perimeter, has to be pushed farther away. Some might enjoy this obvious ‘relevance.’ I personally don’t quite like it. Borges understood that his dives into literature can — in their obsessiveness, in their dream-impulse, in their capacity to display human frailty on an imaginary near-abstract plane — ultimately be very emotional, even though he has been called shallow, cold, and mechanical by many. Calvino, at least in this book, the only one by him I have read, is more up-front about his undercurrents: “seek and learn to recognize who and what, in the midst of the inferno, are not inferno, then make them endure, give them space.” That sounds heartfelt to me. Calvino’s best cities, or mini-stories, are those that manage to provide labyrinthine puzzles that, like Borges’ creations, keep growing in the mind after the book has been put away. Some are actually rather simple, like Phyllis, a beautiful city that eventually becomes a blank page if you remain inside of it for too long and are overtaken by routine and boredom. Like Leonia, the meaning is obvious. But I like Phyllis. It reflects how many people end up experiencing urban spaces. It contains a simple but effective truth. That’s what Calvino seems to be yearning for: kernels of truth in his allegorical cities. One user at Amazon complained that Invisible Cities is too obscure. I disagree. Calvino is not going for obscurity. Many of his meanings are self-evident, and even when they’re not, it’s not difficult to notice his manifold implications. Eusapia has an upper city for the living and a lower city for the dead. The living learn that the dead are subtly changing the features of their city every year, and so the living mimic those changes in their own city. It is then revealed to the reader that, long ago, the dead may have made the city of the living in the image of their underworld, which would mean that the living have always been imitating the dead. I don’t find this obscure. We’re always modulating our actions based on what the dead, what our past, what our heritage, has done, or rather, what we think they have done. Only a select few are granted access to the Eusapia of the dead, which means that the Eusapia of the living, in imitating the dead, depends on the labor of certain historians or travelers or church authorities (in the novel, a confraternity of hooded brothers) who bring back information on how the past has been developing, although we might not even be able to call it past, since the dead exist alongside the living, both having lived and still alive, if only as an idea.

I read three by Bolaño and three by Sabato. As far as Sabato is concerned, he only wrote three novels, so that means I’ve read the full extent of his fictional output. The rest of his books are philosophical essays. That admittedly sounds slightly odd, because his novels can be considered philosophical essays as well, especially The Exterminating Angel. Flipping through Sabato’s novel trilogy in chronological order is a beautiful experience. Every novel contains the previous one within its world-building, although they are not sequels. Every novel demonstrates vertigo-inducing aesthetic development. Sabato wrote them at a pace of one-a-decade, so it is not surprising that the final impression one gets is that Sabato would not write a novel unless he had a completely fresh and ambitious goal in mind. The Tunnel is rather inauspicious, a beginner’s start. It’s not unlike The Stranger by Albert Camus and it’s therefore not surprising that Camus praised The Tunnel. In both novels, we have an unreliable narrator and existential tremors. But Sabato’s protagonist is not Meursault. Juan Pablo Castel is not absent-minded and ennui-plagued. He’s more in line with Humbert Humbert during the second part of Lolita: neurotic, paranoid, solipsistic, and capable of twisting any random anecdote into the fold of a cohesive plot. In short, a storyteller who doesn’t appear to know he’s building a fiction around his life. That said, it’s worth noting that both Humbert Humbert and Castel are self-consciously writing the novel of their crime, so that while they may not “appear to know” the extent to which they’ve twisted reality to fit their imaginary whims, they may in fact be very well aware of their fallacies. After all, let’s not forget that we can always “count on a murderer for a fancy prose style.” Or, to quote Castel, “I am animated by the weak hope that someone might be able to understand me.” I prefer Humbert Humbert, to be sure, but the point is that both unintentional storytellers are — actually or additionally or both — perfectly intentional storytellers.

On Heroes and Tombs is such a massive jump — be it in quality, in scope, in dramatic power, in originality, in anything you might think of — from The Tunnel, that it’s a bit jolting. It begins like Sabato’s first novel, with a similarly fragile man, who similarly falls madly in love, is similarly detached from reality, and similarly spews forth overcooked romantic dialogue. I call this dialogue overcooked, but I think it’s an aesthetic choice rather than a flaw: these fragile and horrendously hopeless romantics live inside the glass ball of their illusions. Their dialogue is overcooked because they have no idea how else to communicate their emotions. One of Sabato’s main themes across his three novels revolves around exactly that question, how to communicate one’s deepest emotions in an effective manner. Unlike The Tunnel, however, On Heroes and Tombs starts off with the aching soul of a young man and then expands, and expands, and expands some more, like an endless spiral reaching farther and farther, embracing more and more land area, until, by the end of its four-hundred-and-thirty pages, we’ve been treated to a massive cosmology involving Argentine history, the whole city of Buenos Aires with all its mid-twentieth century conflicts, and a book-within-a-book that’s been released as a stand-alone product, chronicling one man’s insane battle against a secret organization of dastardly blind people, and all these terrors and cataclysms occur around the main characters and the impassioned love story that they create. There is also an older man, Bruno, who stands in for Sabato as the author-figure searching for a way to depict Argentina, to depict Buenos Aires, to depict the World from the vantage point of that minimal little window that is accorded to an individual. On Heroes and Tombs is a huge novel. Some knowledge of Argentine history is required — if not a whole lot — and this has likely undercut its off-shore fate. The Tunnel is more universal, in the crassest definition of the term, because it needs no knowledge of anything. On Heroes and Tombs is vastly more rewarding, though, and with a little help from Wikipedia, its nightmare has or should have no boundaries.

I can’t quite say the same thing for The Exterminating Angel, even if it was praised in France when it was released in the mid-seventies, which would suggest international appeal. But unlike On Heroes and Tombs, The Exterminating Angel has no plot, no traditional characterizations, no traditional structure, only echoes, and parallels, and slowly interlocking ideas. I said each novel contains the previous one. Indeed. On Heroes and Tombs mentions the crime explained in The Tunnel as a from-the-headlines anecdote, which instantly inserts the plot of the latter into the literary universe of the former. The Exterminating Angel stars Sabato himself as an Argentine book-writing Fellini, save that Sabato doesn’t create an alter-ego like Guido Anselmi, opting instead to unambiguously include himself as the protagonist: not just his name, but his profession, his place in culture, his fame, his everything — it’s Sabato talking about being Sabato. This is how the previous two novels are included into The Exterminating Angel, because Sabato talks about writing them, about translating them, about publishing them, etc. Those put off by self-indulgence should keep their distance. I myself am not put off by self-indulgence, so I kept reading. It’s a great book. But it’s also near-impossible to complete. Like Eight and a Half, it’s the story of an author who can’t come up with a story, so his only solution is to explore his life, his memories, his past works, his loves, his ideas, his spirituality, and in so doing, end up crafting a masterpiece. The difference is that Fellini never moves away from himself. Sabato, on the other hand, casts himself as the protagonist, but he also casts a bevy of secondary characters who are constantly threatening to occupy the center stage, and who finally do so in the concluding hundred pages. The Exterminating Angel shows Sabato’s journey towards self-effacement. To finds his fictional protagonists and escape from himself, he needs to indulge and excavate within, until he can remove himself from his own worldview, and let storytelling serve as his eyes. The novel is about the novelist’s desire to talk about the world he lives in without the need for his bothersome presence. It is also about the novelist’s confusion as to what kind of art to make in a troubled world, and Buenos Aires circa 1974 — with the Military Government two years down the road; the skirmishes between left-wing and right-wing factions writhing in the background; the fragility of democracy; the return of Peron, his death, and the ascension to the presidency of his unprepared wife Isabel Peron (not to be confused with Eva Peron); and the shadow of Lopez Rega’s right-wing death squad, the Triple A, which acted as a prelude to the massive counter-terrorism terrorism practiced by the Military after 1976 — was definitely a troubled world. And since the novel is about a writer trying to cope with his milieu — as he simultaneously copes with his own demons, as writers are prone to do — it only enriches the novel that the milieu in question was such a momentous one, the wounds from which Argentina has still not recovered. Whereas On Heroes and Tombs requires only a cursory understanding of Argentine history to enjoy, The Exterminating Angel is more involved with its time and place. It’s rather dated, if you will. As these sort of things go, the more you know about the historical context, the more you will get out of the novel.

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3 responses

1 01 2010
justin

nice post. i love calvino, you should check out if on a winter’s night a traveler. it’s a bit gimmicky, but what a gimmick. what’d you think of jimmy corrigan and pale fire? i’m currently working my way through 2666.

2 01 2010
beaucine

Jimmy Corrigan and Pale Fire are incredible. I was going to write about them, but I felt the article was long enough already. 2666 will be getting its own article soon enough, so I didn’t feel like bringing it up here. Going back to Corrigan, I often pick it up just to stare again at a couple of panels. It has a gorgeous visual language: from the compositions, to the design, to the typography, and so on. That last part is important: the fact that Ware is so delicate and precise about his typography, making his words part of the visual design, rather than a distraction that merely covers up the scenery. This is especially true during the nineteenth century sections. One of the things I didn’t like about the other comic on my book list, City of Glass, was the fact that I felt the text and the imagery clashed with each other — many of the textual metaphors are reflected directly and unsubtly through the visual design, making one or the other superfluous. Alas, that’s why the comic is famous and celebrated, the fact that the visual design keeps up with the words. But I think it would have worked better if they’d had removed the words altogether. I mean, “New York was a labyrinth of endless steps” followed by New York buildings morphing into a labyrinth is a little… well, it’s like: “You didn’t get the metaphor the first time? Here it is again.” Jimmy Corrigan sort of has this, too. But it works much better. Just look at how the text contributes to the scene that reads: “The sound of one lung filling with water, drowned out by wave after wave of a million buzzing locusts, an invisible chorus that only knows how to sing.” It’s a beautiful moment and the text weaves itself into the imagery, even going so far as to perform the part of the locusts. It’s great. It’s not the text *and* the imagery, it’s the text *with* the imagery, both working together rather than merely copying each other. The comic itself is also very emotional. I know a lot of people think it’s restrained, but I think it’s that restraint that makes it emotional, because you can always sense the troubled feelings writhing underneath the apparently placid surface.

5 01 2010
justin

yeah, jimmy corrigan is perhaps the most depressing comic i’ve read. i love ware’s style, i guess his precision and delicateness keeps some people from connecting to his work emotionally, but i really like it. i haven’t read city of glass, i love the novella, i don’t see the need to add pictures.

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