Ali Smith's Spring to Robert Menasse's The Capital, moments in reading that salvaged an often sour year

A good book can confirm your sanity. A good book can make you feel a bit less alone. In 2019, there was no escaping a sour and scalded national mood, and good books were necessary.

Top 10 lists, including my own, have mercifully come and gone. What remains for this critic, after a year of purposeful reading, are remembered scenes and moments and observations. This column is about a few favourites.

The poet Bob Kaufman died in 1986, but a new book of his verse, Collected Poems of Bob Kaufman, was released this year. In one poem, he sent us a message, as if through a pneumatic tube:

People who read are not happy.People who do not read are not happy.People are not very happy.

The critic Clive James died in November. He wrote, as if in response: “If you don’t know the exact moment when the lights will go out, you might as well read until they do.”

 Ali Smiths Spring to Robert Menasses The Capital, moments in reading that salvaged an often sour year

Top 10 lists have mercifully come and gone. What remains for this critic, after a year of purposeful reading, are remembered scenes and moments and observations.

Politics pushed to the surface, like a fin, in this year’s fiction. “How’re you doing,” a character asked in Ali Smith’s novel Spring, “apart from the end of liberal capitalist democracy?” In Robert Menasse’s sophisticated novel The Capital, set in Brussels, a character watched old nationalist ghosts rise in a tabloid culture, and commented: “He had been prepared for everything, but not everything in caricature.”

In Ocean Vuong’s first novel, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, a young man thought: “The one good thing about national anthems is that we’re already on our feet, and therefore ready to run.” Plump new collections of Wendell Berry’s nonfiction were issued by the Library of America. In one essay, Berry described a lesson learned in military school: “Take a simpleton and give him power and confront him with intelligence — and you have a tyrant.”

This year’s most conflicted and conflicting book was the Mueller Report. It contained a scene that, I suspect, we’ll see in more than one film, play and opera before we are all gone from earth. The President learned from Jeff Sessions that a special prosecutor had been appointed and, according the report, “slumped back in his chair and said, ‘Oh my God. This is terrible. This is the end of my presidency.’” He followed this with an expletive describing his likely fate.

In preparation to review a new translation of Italian writer Elsa Morante’s 1957 novel Arturo’s Island, I read Lily Tuck’s excellent biography of Morante, Woman of Rome. In 1938, Tuck tells us, Morante prepared a pot of boiling oil, intending to pour it on the heads of Hitler and Mussolini, who were about to pass in a convertible limousine under her apartment window. Her future husband, the novelist Alberto Moravia, talked her out of this suicide mission at the last minute.

Maybe you didn’t refresh your browser at all in 2019. Think, Write, Speak, a new collection of Vladimir Nabokov’s nonfiction, arrived this year. Nabokov told an interviewer in 1974, “I don’t even know who Mr Watergate is.”

It was a good year to pick a fight. In his novel Machines Like Me, Ian McEwan had advice for winning one: “In a full-on row it was not necessary to respond to the last thing said. Generally it was best not to. In an attacking move, ignore bishop or castle. Logic and straight lines were out. Best to rely on the knight.”

Even the food writing in 2019 was a bit bruised. In Peter Orner’s new collection of stories, Maggie Brown & Others, he wrote: “Only human beings could make a party out of boiling a few fellow creatures alive and then cracking their backs open.”

In Smith’s Spring, we read about one woman: “Her favourite food is anything burnt.” In Nell Zink’s novel Doxology, a piece of chicken tasted, in words you are unlikely to see on a handwritten menu card, like “distributive injustice personified.”

A case could be made that it was a bad year to stop sniffing glue, and a good year to start smoking again. A new collection of Gabriel García Márquez’s journalism, The Scandal of the Century and Other Writings, was published. He remarked that smoking is good for writers, if bad for their bottom line.

“The best writers are the ones who tend to write less and smoke more,” Márquez wrote, “and so it’s normal that they need at least two years and 29,000 cigarettes to write a book of 200 pages. What that means in good arithmetic is that just on what they smoke they spend more than what they’ll earn from the book.”

In her book Higher Etiquette: A Guide to the World of Cannabis, from Dispensaries to Dinner Parties, Lizzie Post wrote about vape pens at weed-centric dinners: “They may be placed to the right of the setting or across the top of the setting either between the place card and dessertware or behind the place card.” End of days?

I spent too many years of my life afraid to fly, and am attuned to the writing of others thus afflicted. I was glad to read, in Márquez’s journalism, how “all my energy goes into gripping my seat with my hands to hold it up in order to help the plane stay up in the air, or trying to keep children from running in the aisles for fear they’ll break through the floor.”

If you had a difficult year romantically, be relieved that you are not trying to date in parts of Saudi Arabia. In an anthology titled Our Women on the Ground: Essays by Arab Women Reporting from the Arab World, Donna Abu-Nasr, Bloomberg’s Saudi Arabia bureau chief, wrote:

“Often, while I was stuck in traffic, young men would slam Post-its or papers with their mobile phone numbers scribbled on them on the window of my car. That was one way to pick up women. Another was to go to the mall and throw the little slips of paper at the feet of women covered head to toe in black.”

Tourism run amok was a pervasive theme this year. In Menasse’s novel, we read about Émile, a police inspector: “Back in 1914, his grandfather had said, Brussels was the richest and most beautiful city in the world — then they came three times, twice in their boots with rifles, the third time in their trainers with cameras.”

Robert Macfarlane’s Underland: A Deep Time Journey, contained this stonking sentence: “This is the way the world ends, this is the way the world ends, this is the way the world ends — not with a bang but a visitors’ center.”

Kevin Barry’s novel Night Boat to Tangier was a pleasure to have and hold. It contained advice, perhaps, for the writer of this column: “Watch for the glamorous sentence that appears from nowhere — it might have plans for you.”

Dwight Garner c. 2019 The New York Times Company

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Updated Date: Dec 19, 2019 09:30:56 IST