May 2022 | Reads & Reviews

April 2022 Reading Recommendations
March 2022 Reading Recommendations
2021 Book Review: Faves & Recommendations

May 2022 reading

My short story “Roosiaed” (Rose Garden) was published in the leading Estonian literary magazine Looming‘s May 2022 issue. It had the unexpected effect of making me spend more time on writing the next stories. Also, I reviewed Iris Murdoch’s “The Sea, The Sea” for Estonian culture weekly Sirp.

Contrary to the rose business, blossoming and booming all around Paris, my short story reading habits have withered – this might also be the effect of writing more myself. The few I’ve read curiously echoed the Sally-Rooneysque young-adult literature nerd decadence.

Update: Been balancing the guilty-pleasure New Yorker fiction with some scholarly essays in the past Centennial Review issues.

Best of short stories read this month:

  • Eddy by Anne Carson, via The Paris Review, link
  • Invisible Bird by Claire-Louise Bennett, via The New Yorker, link
  • Nondisclosure Agreement by Saïd Sayrafiezadeh, via The New Yorker, link
  • The Repugnant Conclusion by Elif Batuman, via The New Yorker, link

Recommendations of articles, essays, reviews:

The Impact of Pompeii on the Literary Imagination by Laurence Goldstein, via The Centennial Review 3/1979, link

The deadly fate of Pompeii has been interpreted in many various ways throughout history. Either the City of the Dead of Sir Walter Scott, a symbol of looming catastrophe – a memento mori. Or the City of Sin, after the “Sodoma Gomora” graffiti scrawled on a ruined wall of Pompeii shortly after the catastrophe. The city – the victim – and Vesuvius – the destroyer – have inspired poets and writers throughout centuries.

Self-reflective Fiction in the Age of Systemic Communication by Paul Maltby, via The Centennial Review 1/1996, link

The author argues that the novels of many 20th-century American authors, including Burroughs, Nabokov, Bellow, Pynchon, DeLillo, Acker, Vonnegut, et al are inherently system novels in that they create their own system of logic in which they operate. As the 20th century saw a rise in cybernetics and a shift onto greater bureaucracy, technocracy, and the organization of society into systems, writers turned away from literary realism and towards self-reflexive fiction.

In Maultby’s definition, “self-reflective” suggests writing that reflects on itself, an introverted, self-enclosed more of fiction that brackets out the world in order to play in the funhouse of language. The first example he brought of this, the purest one and also coinciding with my own initial thought, was Nabokov’s Pale Fire (currently reading).

That Crafty Feeling – Zadie Smith’s lecture given to the students of Columbia University’s writing program, via The Believer, link

“To begin I want to offer you a pair of somewhat ugly terms for two breeds of novelist: The Macro Planner and The Micro Manager.

Macro Planners have their houses basically built from day one and so their obsession is internal—they’re forever moving the furniture. They’ll put a chair in the bedroom, the lounge, the kitchen and then back in the bedroom again. Micro Managers like me build a house floor by floor, discreetly and in its entirety. Each floor needs to be sturdy and fully decorated with all the furniture in place before the next is built on top of it. There’s wallpaper in the hall even if the stairs lead nowhere at all.”

Painting Herself – Ruth Bernard Yeazell reviewing two books on female self-portraitists, via the New York Review of Books, link

Books reviewed: ​​

  • The Mirror and the Palette: Rebellion, Revolution, and Resilience: Five Hundred Years of Women’s Self Portraits by Jennifer Higgie
  • The Self-Portrait by Natalie Rudd

“Among the legendary figures whose stories Giovanni Boccaccio relates in Famous Women (1361–1362) is a Roman virgin named Marcia, who earned her fame as much for her skills as an artist, he tells us, as for her chastity. Both outpacing and outearning her contemporaries, the energetic Marcia is said to have worked in ivory as well as paint, but the only object Boccaccio specifically describes is a self-portrait, “painted on a panel with the aid of a mirror.” A charming illumination from an early-fifteenth-century French manuscript shows Marcia at work on the picture, her visage tripled, as she gazes at the small convex mirror reflecting her face in her left hand, while her right wields a brush with which she touches up the lips of the painted image.”

Sofonisba Anguissola: Self-Portrait at the Easel Painting a Devotional Panel, circa 1556
Sofonisba Anguissola: Self-Portrait at the Easel Painting a Devotional Panel, circa 1556

Living it Large – James Fenton on John Richardson, the legendary biographer of Picasso + the acrimonious art-historical facts he told, via the TLS, link

“In [Richardon’s essay] “Nina Kandinsky’s Deadly Diamonds”, we encounter the widow of the great abstract artist. As Nina’s fortunes improve with the art market, she treats herself to ever more spectacular jewellery until one day in Gstaad she is robbed and strangled, probably by someone she knew.”

An Impulse Felt Round the World – Julian Bell on the Surrealism Beyond Borders exhibition, via the New York Review of Books, link

Previously on view in MoMa, now in Tate Modern.

“In [Richardon’s essay] “Nina Kandinsky’s Deadly Diamonds”, we encounter the widow of the great abstract artist. As Nina’s fortunes improve with the art market, she treats herself to ever more spectacular jewellery until one day in Gstaad she is robbed and strangled, probably by someone she knew.”

Remedios Varo: Embroidering the Earth’s Mantle, 1961
Remedios Varo: Embroidering the Earth’s Mantle, 1961

The Babel Within by Gavin Francis, via the New York Review of Books, link

Reviewing two new memoirs considering bilingualism and growing up in a non-native land.

The Spell of Marble – Ingrid D. Rowland reviewing a new biography of Gian Lorenzo Bernini, via the New York Review of Books, link

My favorite Berninis, seen in Rome in January 2022, were the angels of Ponte Sant’Angelo + Apollo and Daphne in Galleria Borghese.

Vladimir Nabokov’s Best Writing Advice, via LitHub, link

Apparently, Nabokov had plenty to say on the subject.

“There are three points of view from which a writer can be considered: he may be considered as a storyteller, as a teacher, and as an enchanter. A major writer combines these three—storyteller, teacher, enchanter—but it is the enchanter in him that predominates and makes him a major writer.”

“Style is not a tool, it is not a method, it is not a choice of words alone. Being much more than all this, style constitutes an intrinsic component or characteristic of the author’s personality. Thus when we speak of style we mean an individual artist’s peculiar nature, and the way it expresses itself in his artistic output.”

“Style and structure are the essence of a book; great ideas are hogwash.”

Different under the Quill – Tom Johnson’s gritty account of the popularization of paper in Medieval England, via the London Review of Books, link

“Paper felt different under the quill. Unlike parchment, with its smooth, oily surface, paper is fibrous and porous, so absorbs ink more easily. As Orietta Da Rold suggests, this enabled scribes to write more quickly, and may have abetted the development of the cursive ‘secretary’ hand found in later medieval administrative writing. Paper’s porosity also meant that once the ink had soaked into the surface, it could not easily be removed. Parchment was quite different, as mistakes could be physically scratched off the thin layer of skin where the text lay; the medieval Latin erado, from which we derive the word ‘erase’, means literally ‘to scrape off’. 

Book reviews

Le Jeune Homme by Annie Ernaux, 5/5

Annie Ernaux has written about her abortion, her affair with a Russian diplomat, and, most lately, she published Le jeune homme – an essay-length account of her affair with a man almost 30 years younger than she. “Si je ne les écris pas, les choses ne sont pas allées jusqu’au à leur terme, elles ont éte seulement vécues,” the book’s epigraph explains. “Unless I write, the things that happened won’t reach their end, they will only have been lived.” 

Many of Ernaux’s subjects may sound exhibitionist adhering to a niche long-apparent in French literary tradition. Françoise Sagan’s memoirs, Sheila Heiti’s soul-searching contemplations, to bring some examples. Ernaux, however, has developed a unique way to process her memories and memoirs. She lays her past out in the open, like bedsheets on a drying line fluttering in wind. Observations, meanings, and conclusions begin to drip out of the memories. Moving through distant memories, Ernaux and her reader analyze the natural drives and desires of a person and discover deep truths about being human.

While “Simple Passion,” Ernaux’s account of her affair with a married Russian diplomat, the protagonist is living in a haunting fever of passion and longing, the protagonist of  “Le jeune homme” is calculated to seduce. This time around, she’s the one making rules. The narrator doesn’t fall into details like the young man’s exact age, background, or social status. What is of interest is the relationship dynamic between a young man and a 30y older, socially and economically established woman. Ernaux asks what did both parties get out of this relation amoureuse and answers her own question: “Il était le porteur de la mémoire de mon premier monde.” “Avec lui je parcourais tous les âges de la vie, ma vie.” 

I wonder whether by writing “Le jeune homme” she once more lived through the memories and sensations of her “first world.”

Sleepless Nights by Elizabeth Hardwick, 5/5

sleepless nights by elizabeth hardwick

“Perhaps it is true that being from where I am I was born a gambler. And as the gambler in Dostoyevsky’s great story says: It is true that only one out of a hundred wins, but what is that to me?”

The protagonist, a female writer hailing from Kentucky travels the world, strolls the streets of Manhattan, and falls in and out of love. Is she a gambler? No, although she’d wish to be. If anything she – like many other women whose stories she’ll tell – she’s a piece on a board of chess, played by men with the insouciance of a héritier. Heirs to history, patriarchy, and money.

Sleepless Nights springs from the struggles of her marriage to the poet Robert Lowell, a man who was after experience. “His experience included a forgotten marriage, entanglements with waitresses, hairdressers, women who sold tobacco at the hotel, drifting, pretty women, all losers.” The man’s hunger for experience was “not so much deep as wide.”

When Sleepless Nights was published, McCarthy sent a letter to Hardwick praising her book. She had not anticipated how Hardwick would deal with the huge fact of her famous husband:

“It didn’t occur to me that you could do it simply by leaving him out. That’s a brilliant technical stroke but proves to be much more than that: he becomes a sort of black hole in outer space, to be filled in ad lib, which is poetic justice; he’s condemned by the form to non-existence—you couldn’t do that in a conventional autobiography.”

Against many odds, this rather slim book manages to take the reader to places and lives far and beyond, all miserable in their own way. Hardwick’s writing breathes poetic wisdom and piercing truth. There she is, gambling with words.

Companion Piece by Ali Smith

companion piece by ali smith

Sand’s keeping her father’s dog. Her father’s been hopitalized with a heart problem. She’s thinking of Kerberos. The phone rings. It’s Martina Inglis, a woman she hasn’t spoken to for more than ten years, has only spoken to once. Martina tells Sand a story about being kept in the airport interrogation room for seven hours, sitting there with a 16th-century Boothby Lock. More stories will follow, stories will abound. But, as Sand knows: “A story is never an answer. A story is always a question.”

While Companion Piece is a pandemic novel, the covid problem is there only as a source of relevant constraints. Smith is at her best here, telling one story after another, the boundaries between real and surreal becoming ever faint. 

A girl, a blacksmith. Raped and believed dead, but saved by a nestling of a curfew. Saving the curfew, saving herself, learning the ways of vagabond life. Tears and laughter. The present and the past. While the language of the book, for this reader, became at times wearisomely playful à la Smith, the messages and ideas it carries were beautiful and artful. Companion Piece is a book that requires a certain mood. And then, it will accompany you to places you’d never expected to reach.

“The poem’s about a person who’s miles from land, they’ve been at sea in a boat for a long long time, and it’s sort of prayer about our aloneness and our surviving. All the season pass through it, or the poem’s speaker passes in the boat through all the seasons with nothing for company but the sea and the life of the sea. Except, dad, and this is what I love about it, actually the speaker isn’t alone at all, because I’m reading or hearing the poem, or you are, if it’s you reading. A conversation with someone or something that’s silent is still a conversation.” 
(Sand is telling this to her hospitalized father, unconscious but, according to the nurse, able to listen.)

“What a lifestyle thing life has become, I thought.”

The Sea, The Sea by Iris Murdoch

The Sea The Sea Iris Murdoch

The Sea, The Sea was published in 1978 and received The Booker Prize the same year. As it was recently republished in Estonia in Varrak’s Kuldsari (Golden Series), I reread and reviewed it for Sirp. I hadn’t expected the second reading to bring so much joy which it most certainly did. The book’s opening passage is a thing of beauty:

“The sea which lies before me as I write glows rather than sparkles in the bland May sunshine. With the tide turning, it leans quietly against the land, almost unflecked by ripples or by foam. Near the horizon it is a luxurious purple, spotted with regular lines of emerald green. At the horizon it is indigo. Near to the shore, where my view is framed by rising heaps of humpy yellow rock, there is a band of lighter green, icy and pure, less radiant, opaque however, not transparent. We are in the north, and the bright sunshine cannot penetrate the sea. Where the gentle water taps the rocks there is still a surface skin of colour. The cloudless sky is very pale at the indigo horizon which it lightly pencils in with silver. Its blue gains towards the zenith and vibrates there. But the sky looks cold, even the sun looks cold.”

While the intellectual and philosophical musings on ethics and morals – Murdoch’s dear subjects – are through-provoking in their own right, I marveled and smiled most at the protagonists’ culinary escapades, modeled on the recipes of Murdoch’s husband John Bailey.

“For dinner I had an egg poached in hot scrambled egg, then the coley braised with onions and lightly dusted with curry powder, and served with a little tomato ketchup and mustard (only a fool despises tomato ketchup.) Then a heavenly rice pudding.”

“Why wantonly destroy one’s palate for cheap wine (And by that I do not of course mean the brew that tastes of bananas) One of the secrets of a happy life is continuous small treats, and if some of these can be inexpensive and quickly procured so much the better.”

“For lunch I ate the kipper fillets rapidly unfrozen in boiling water (the sun had done most of the work), garnished with lemon juice, oil and a light sprinkling of dry herbs. Kipper fillets are arguably better then smoked salmon unless very good. With these fried tinned potatoes (no real potatoes yet) Potatoes are for me a treat dish, not a dull every day chaperon. Then Welsh rarebit and hot beetroot. The shop sliced bread is less than great, but all right toasted with good salty New Zealand butter. Fortunately I like a wide variety of those crackly Scandinavian biscuits which are supposed to make you thin.”

“Felt a little depressed but was cheered up by supper; spaghetti with a little butter and dried basil (Basil is of course the king of herbs). Then spring cabbage cooked slowly with dill. Boiled onions served with bran, herbs, soya oil and tomatoes, with one egg beaten in. With these a slice or two of cold tinned corned beef.”

Bon appetit, yo.