Thursday, 2 January 2014

What I Read In 2013




In 2013 I read 111 books. This was better than last year, but still far from my personal record of 126 books. I think this year I devoted more time to reading than last year, even if I didn’t register a considerable increase in quantity. I attribute this to having read a lot more longer books, that is, anything above five hundred pages, than last year: William Blake’s The Complete Poetry and Prose, Eugénio de Andrade’s Poesia, Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones, William Gaddis’ The Recognitions, D.H. Lawrence’s The Collected Poems, João Ubaldo Ribeiro’s An Invincible Memory and Mario Vargas Llosa’s Conversation in the Cathedral. In terms of quality, it was also a very good year, with many more ups than downs, and many extraordinary discoveries, and a deepening of many familiar writers. What follows is a synthesis of the best and worst:

Novels:

This year of course I read lots of Brazilian novels, unreservedly loving João Ubaldo Ribeiro’s An Invincible Memory and Rubem Fonseca’s Agosto; the first is an epic narrative about four centuries of Brazilian history, from before the arrival of Europeans to the 20th century; the other follows an upright police inspector investigating a murder amidst the unravelling of Getúlio Vargas’ government. Jorge Amado’s Showdown required time to adjust to its slow pace, but the novel’s payoff was certainly worth it. The same, unfortunately, couldn’t be said of João Guimarães Rosa’s The Devil to Pay in the Backlands, which from its first pages kept me at a distance with its plodding storytelling, and I simply I gave up halfway. Another one which I abandoned halfway through was Lawrence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy, a novel that may display considerable inventiveness, but had no idea how to keep me engaged for the duration of a page. Two other notable duds include William Gaddis’ The Recognitions and László Krasznahorkai’s Satantango. The former started very well, very funny, but as it progressed it turned into a mess that I fear not even the author knew where it was headed; the latter was a hopeless bore from the first sentence and it was a joy to speed-read it to its never-close-enough conclusion. Reaching the end was something I did not want to do, at least not very quickly, in the cases of Curzio Malaparte’s La Pelle and Vladimir Nabokov’s Ada or Ardor, possibly the best two new novels I read last year. For in the case of re-reads, nothing beats José Saramago’s The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis. Apropos of re-reads, it was a pleasure to re-read Eça de Queiroz’ The Correspondence of Fradique Mendes in light of everything I recently learned about the genesis of this bizarre character. Camilo Castelo Branco was a writer I decided to read more of this year to improve my knowledge of him, and his Doomed Love was a very unexpected surprise. Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones and Mario Vargas Llosa’s Conversation in the Cathedral were also novels that ultimately satisfied me, although I had some reservations while reading them. Although not the best novel I read this year, Gonzalo Torrente Ballester’s Fragmentos de Apocalipsis, read in Spanish, stands out for its utter weirdness, its premise shouldn’t work, it’s a novel about writing a novel, and it’s being written right in front of our eyes as the narrator creates characters, fills the settings with details, alters them, ponders plot lines, then discards them, and hires Moriarty to find his evil doppelganger writing a counter-narrative, all the while justifying his narrative choices and maintaining an ongoing conversation about literature with his girlfriend a Soviet Russian literary critic – but it completely works! It’s a doozy this one.

Plays:

Unlike the case of novels, this was a very poor year for plays. I read two plays by José Saramago, A Segunda Vida de Francisco de Assis and In Nomine Dei, which were not very strong. I just don’t think Saramago has a good ear for dialogue, something minimized in his novels by the exuberant prose. Now, in the case of Eugene O’Neill, the same can’t be said. Although this is a very old-fashioned position to defend, in this day and age of sexy commodities like the Theatre of the Absurd, angry young men and dazzling but short-lived upstarts, I maintain that O’Neill was the greatest playwright of the 20th century, standing head and shoulders above Beckett, Pirandello, Ionesco, Sartre, Mamet, Osborne, and Pinter, and perhaps equalled only by Edward Albee. Desire Under the Elms, Strange Interlude and Mourning Becomes Electra are three rich plays that try to get down to the core of their characters, with O’Neill often developing new stage techniques akin to what in prose we call stream of consciousness. In the end, though, it’s his ear for dialogue and his understanding of psychology, marred only by silly Freudian nonsense that most artists gobbled back then, that continues to keep these plays so vital.

Poetry:

2013 was an exceptional year for poetry, both for new books and for re-reads. The highlight of the year was undoubtedly William Blake’s The Complete Poetry and Prose, which marvelled me as much as it exasperated me. I have to wonder how much of his fame rests solely on The Songs of Innocence and Experience, most people probably don’t venture further than that, and perhaps for a very good reason. At least I was happy to know that his earliest defenders, Alexander Gilchrist and Algernon Swinburne, whom I read afterwards, were as equally baffled by Milton, The Four Zoas, Jerusalem, etc., about which they could only make vague, polite noises, lost in their total inability to understand what the hell he was writing about. Pablo Neruda was another poet who made me feel ambivalent about him: I found The Book of Questions very charming, but I can’t remember a verse from The Captain’s Verses. Reading Vasko Popa’s Collected Poems, after all the expectations I had built, was also disappointing. And although I consider Adam Zagajewski one of the best living poets, his Unseen Hand didn’t enthral me as vigorously as his previous collections. D. H. Lawrence was a conventional poet, but not devoid of talent: there’s nothing horrible in The Complete Poems, but I don’t share the man’s infatuation with nature, and endless descriptions of landscapes, trees, bushes, fruits, birds, etc., can get on my nerves; I enjoyed his irreverent Pansies a lot more, which acted as a sort of emotional diary in poetic form. I also enjoyed the poetry of José Craveirinha, an Angolan poet, and Conceição Lima, a woman poet from São Tomé and Príncipe. At home, I launched myself into Eugénio de Andrade’s thick poetic collection, and there was a lot to enjoy amidst so much repetition. I also took the time to get better acquainted with the poetry of Antero de Quental, indeed an extraordinary poet, and Sá de Miranda, for whom I have more respect than admiration. Admiration and respect is something I always have for Jorge de Sena, and until the day I can read his complete poetry, the Antologia Poética is a great appetizer. Then I re-read Luís de Camões’s lyrical poetry, unfairly neglected because of his epic poem, marvelling at this man’s unparalleled command of the Portuguese language, and Teixeira de Pascoaes’s As Sombras, a mad plunge into the saturnine side of man’s soul. I also finished reading Fernando Pessoa’s poems attributed to his heteronym Álvaro de Campos, to my mind the best of the famous three. The great revelation of the year, though, was Ferreira Gullar: Em Alguma Parte Alguma and Poema Sujo, luminous, sensitive, philosophical, living poetry, if I read more by him he may end up displacing Zagajewski as my favourite living poet.

Short-Stories/Novellas:

Another year I didn’t read much of either. Let’s get the really bad out of the way first: Clarice Lispector’s Stream of Life? No! Gonçalo M. Tavares’ Água, Cão, Cavalo, Cabeça certainly didn’t commove my aesthesis, as we literate people call it, my capacity to feel beauty, because of how crudely written the whole book was. But it happens to me, I don’t know if it does to you, that when I’m exposed to outstanding, sensuous, gorgeous prose, say Nabokov’s Ada or Ardor, for several months I can’t turn off the feeling that every book should be written like that, and I have to undergo a process of unlearning to like good prose to appreciate the output of lesser writers. So maybe Tavares isn’t a bad writer, he’s just an average one, and I was still under Ada’s aura. But I liked its dark humour at least. A real master of dark humour, though, is Rubem Fonseca, and he was perhaps my best find of 2013: A Confraria dos Espadas was a fascinating collection of short-stories, and Mandrake - A Bíblia e a Bengala contains two very original detective novellas. Still in Brazil, I re-read Ferreira Gullar’s Cidades Inventadas, and it’s still one of the best collections I’ve ever read. On the other hand, I expected a lot more from Leonardo Sciascia after being dazzled by Equal Danger, but I Pugnalatori, a novella about a district attorney investigating a multiple murder in Sicily in the 1860s, left me rather cold, perhaps because he was being constrained by the historical facts of the story, which was rather dour, in any event his irony was missing. But the real highlight was my re-read of Eça de Queiroz’ O Conde d'Abranhos, quite simple one of the funniest novellas I’ve ever read in my life.

Non-Fiction:

Last year I read a lot about art. Roger Fry’s Vision and Design was an interesting window into the art world circa 1920. Whitney Chadwick’s Women Artists and the Surrealist Movement was a much waited read that didn’t disappoint, as it was full with information about women artists I love like Leonor Fini, Dorothea Tanning and Leonora Carrington. Ross King’s Michaelangelo and the Pope's Ceiling was a lively and informative book about everything that went into the creation of the famous frescoes. Jonathon Keats’ Forged is a book about six remarkable 20th century art forgers, used by the author to discuss the thin line between fakes and originals, and how often what we call art becomes art by a mere matter of chance. Laney Salisbury and Aly Sujo’s Provenance takes the reader into similar territory: provenance, in the art world, refers to the documents that authenticate a work of art as the work of an artist, and not a forgery for instance. As Keats explains in the other book, up until and during the Renaissance people didn’t give two hoots about who drew what, it was the work itself that mattered, its technical perfection, its perfect rendering of figures, its colours, etc., and fakes were as admired as originals provided they were as good. But as the pendulum shifted from craftsmanship to individual expression, from technique to celebrity status, it became important to know who painted what. Hence provenance; the problem is that faking documents is easier than faking paintings; the two authors take us through a fascinating hoax orchestrated by John Drewe, a visionary grifter, who got himself a competent but frustrated artist to fake a few Old Masters and a few modern ones too. They weren’t very well drawn, but his suave partner ingratiated himself with the cream de la cream of London’s art scene, gaining access to the Tate Gallery, Institute of Contemporary Arts, and the Victorian and Albert Museum, adulterating their archives with fake documents that proved the authenticity of the paintings he sold. Since the provenance was above board, often critics, curators and art dealers ignored their own instincts about the paintings’ quality, and many of them ended up sold around the world. As I said, the line between art and not-art is very thin. Oscar Chiantore and Antonio Rava’s Conserving Contemporary Art was a fascinating introduction to many of the problems of conservation assailing modern art. Basically, modern art is going to die a lot faster than frescoes painted five centuries ago. As 20th century painters began to ignore basic techniques like sizing and priming the canvas before painting on it, and started using modern industrial products whose long-term effects are still unknown, modern art works begin to show signs of deterioration mere decades after completion. A case in point is Mark Rothko’s Rothko Chapel, whose panels he created for it had to be pulled down a few years later for restoration, to halt their deterioration. The panels he painted for Harvard College were permanently removed less than 20 years later because sun had discoloured them. Later they discovered Rothko had run out of paint and went out and bought a different brand from the nearest supplier, failing to check if both brands were compatible – how colours chemically reacted with each other was a major concern for the Old Masters – and it turns out they weren’t. But what else did I read? As far as biography goes, Alexander Gilchrist’s The Life of William Blake was a monumental work, perceptive, informative, generous to Blake, and the author avoided making many interpretations of his unreadable poetry. Alas, Algernon Swinburne plunged head on into flowery interpretations, and produced a nearly unreadable book called William Blake: A Critical Essay. Swinburne the literary critic is a forefather of abstruse thinkers like Jean Baudrillard, whose Simulacra and Simulation is one of the most grotesque intellectual pranks I’ve ever had the displeasure of reading. Another interesting biography was Christopher de Bellaigue’s Patriot of Persia, about Mohammad Mosaddegh, a progressive Iranian Prime-Minister who was overthrown by a joint US/UK coup. As I read this book I kept thinking to myself, “This would have made a far more interesting movie than that stupid Argo!” Ferreira Gullar’s memoirs, Rabo de Foguete, about his exile, was also very good. Carlos Alberto Zito’s El Buenos Aires de Borges is a funny book about how Borges depicts his home town in his fiction and poetry, a useful resource for fans. Reading Miguel Roza’s Fernando Pessoa/Aleister Crowley: Encontro Magick, the correspondence of these two wondrous men, was also very entertaining. Indeed, fact is stranger than fiction. Miguel de Unamuno’s Por Tierras de Portugal y España was pretty much responsible for all my reads in November and December. Paul Bowles’ Their Heads are Green and Their Hands Are Blue takes us to North Africa and shows his talent for observation and description. Joel Serrão’s O Primeiro Fradique Mendes was first-rate literary scholarship, as was Adolfo Casais Monteiro’s O que foi e o que não foi o Movimento Presença. George Orwell’s Books v. Cigarettes reminded me that I need to read his essays.

I read books from Angola, Portugal, Brazil, France, UK, Italy, USA, Mozambique, Spain, Germany, Hungary, São Tomé and Príncipe, Belgium, Chile, Serbia, Austria, Peru, Poland, and Argentina, that is, nineteen countries, two less than last year. No doubt because I spent the whole second half of the year reading mostly Portuguese literature.

I re-read more than usual. Once again, my most read writer was José Saramago, with 6 books. Next was Fernando Pessoa and Ferreira Gullar, with 4 books each. And Rubem Fonseca, with 3. That makes sense. Anyway, this is what I read in 2013:


Agualusa, José Eduardo: Um Estranho em Goa
Almada Negreiros: Nome de Guerra
Amado, Jorge: Jubiabá
Amado, Jorge: Showdown
Baudrillard, Jean: Simulacra and Simulation
Bessa-Luís, Agustina: Kafkiana
Blake, William: The Complete Poetry and Prose
Bowles, Paul: Their Heads are Green and Their Hands Are Blue
Brandão, Raul: A Morte do Palhaço e o Mistério da Árvore
Burke, Edmund: A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful
Buzzati, Dino: Poema a Fumetti
Carroll, Lewis: Phantasmagoria (reread)
Casais Monteiro, Adolfo: O que foi e o que não foi o Movimento Presença
Castelo Branco, Camilo: Doomed Love
Castelo Branco, Camilo: O Bem e o Mal
Chadwick, Whitney: Women Artists and the Surrealist Movement
Chiantore, Oscar and Antonio Rava: Conserving Contemporary Art
Clemente, Manuel: Portugal e os Portugueses
Conti, Alessandro: History of the Restoration and Conservation of Works of Art
Correia, Pedro: Vogais e Consoantes Politicamente Incorrectas do Acordo Ortográfico
Craveirinha, José: Obra Poética I
da Nóbrega, Isabel: Os Anjos e os Homens
de Andrade, Eugénio: Poesia
de Andrade, Mário: Macunaíma
de Bellaigue, Christopher: Patriot of Persia
de Camões, Luís: Lírica (re-read)
de Carvalho, José António Ribeiro: Ditadura Franquista
de Góis, Damião: Descrição da Cidade de Lisboa
de Moraes, Vinicius: O Operário em Construção
de Pascoaes, Teixeira: As Sombras; À Ventura; Jesus e Pã (re-read)
de Queiroz, Eça: The Correspondence of Fradique Mendes (re-read)
de Queiroz, Eça: O Conde d'Abranhos (reread)
de Quental, Antero: Os Sonetos
de Sá de Miranda, Francisco: Poesia e Teatro
de Sena, Jorge: Antologia Poética

de Sena, Jorge/Sophia de Mello Breyner: Correspondência: 1959-1978 
de Unamuno, Miguel: Por Tierras de Portugal y España
de Unamuno, Miguel: Portugal - Um Povo de Suicidas
Doerner, Max: The Materials of the Artist and their Use in Painting
Ferreira, José Medeiros: Não Há Mapa Cor-de-Rosa
Fielding, Henry: Tom Jones
Fonseca, Rubem: A Confraria dos Espadas
Fonseca, Rubem: Agosto
Fonseca, Rubem: Mandrake - A Bíblia e a Bengala
Fry, Roger: Vision and Design
Gaddis, William: The Recognitions
Garrett, Almeida: Viagens na Minha Terra
Gil, José: Portugal, Hoje: O Medo de Existir
Gilchrist, Alexander: The Life of William Blake
Guimarães Rosa, João: The Devil to Pay in the Backlands
Gullar, Ferreira: Cidades Inventadas (re-read)
Gullar, Ferreira: Em Alguma Parte Alguma
Gullar, Ferreira: Dirty Poem
Gullar, Ferreira: Rabo de Foguete
Herculano, Alexandre: Eurico, o Presbítero
Jorge, Lídia: The Painter of Birds
Keats, Jonathon: Forged
King, Ross: Michaelangelo and the Pope's Ceiling
Krasznahorkai, László: Satantango
Lawrence, D.H.: The Complete Poems
Lima, Conceição: O Útero da Casa
Lispector, Clarice: Stream of Life
Lucarelli, Carlo: Il Commissario De Luca
Malaparte, Curzio: The Skin
Martins, Oliveira: Portugal nos Mares
Michaux, Henri:
Mes propriétés
Nabokov, Vladimir: Ada or Ardor
Neruda, Pablo: The Book of Questions
Neruda, Pablo: The Captain's Verses
O'Neill, Alexandre: Anos 70
O'Neill, Eugene: Three Plays
Orwell, George: Books v. Cigarettes
Pedro Martins, João: Suite 605
Pepetela: Lueji, o nascimento de um império
Pessoa, Fernando: A Hora do Diabo
Pessoa, Fernando: A Poesia de Álvaro de Campos II
Pessoa, Fernando: Associações Secretas e outros escritos
Pessoa, Fernando: Lisbon: What the Tourist Should See
Popa, Vasko: Collected Poems
Rame, Franca & Dario Fo: Una Vita All'Improvvisa
Ribeiro, Aquilino: A Batalha sem Fim
Ribeiro, Aquilino: Maria Benigna
Rilke, Reiner Maria: Elegias de Duíno
Roth, Philip: The Dying Animal
Roth, Philip: The Professor of Desire
Roza, Miguel: Fernando Pessoa/Aleister Crowley: Encontro Magick
Santos Pereira, Álvaro: Portugal na Hora da Verdade
Saramago, José: A Estátua e a Pedra
Saramago, José: A Segunda Vida de Francisco de Assis
Saramago, José: In Nomine Dei
Saramago, José: The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis (reread)
Saramago, José: Os Apontamentos
Saramago, José: Os Poemas Possíveis
Sciascia, Leonardo: I Pugnalatori
Semprún, Jorge: A Linguagem É A Minha Pátria
Serrão, Joel: O Primeiro Fradique Mendes
Sterne, Laurence: Tristram Shandy
Sujo, Aly/Laney Salisbury: Provenance
Swinburne, Algernon Charles: William Blake: A Critical Essay
Tavares, Gonçalo M.: Água Cão Cavalo Cabeça (reread)
Tavares, Rui: O Fiasco do Milénio
Tavares, Rui: Pobre e Mal Agradecido
Torrente Ballester, Gonzalo: Fragmentos de Apocalipsis
Trevisan, Dalton: The Vampire of Curitiba
Ubaldo Ribeiro, João: O Feitiço da Ilha do Pavão
Ubaldo Ribeiro, João: An Invincible Memory
Vargas Llosa, Mario: Conversations in the Cathedral
Waldo Emerson, Ralph: Self-Reliance and other essays
Yates, Frances A: The Art of Memory
Zagajewski, Adam: Unseen Hand
Zito, Carlos Alberto: El Buenos Aires de Borges

8 comments:

  1. I myself hope to read more nonfiction, poetry, and short stories this year along with a couple of doorstopper-style novels. Nothing like 111 titles, though! Sounds like a great reading year for you and, by the way, your previous comments about Saramago's The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis were what made me want to include it on my Ibero-American readalong list (i.e. even before your even more recent words about it). Thanks for the suggestion!

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  2. No kidding, no dice on Tristram Shandy? I should do a month of Sterne. Love that stuff.

    Maybe some day I will find the concentration to catch up with you on some of that poetry. You dug in deep thsi year.

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  3. This is impressive. I wish I could read some of these Lusophonic writers. Accessing them here is so much difficult.

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  4. A good mix of genre and countries. What didn't work for you, and why they didn't, are of interest as the ones that did.

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  5. I am so impressed with both the quality and quantity of your list Miguel. The two do not often go together in yearly book lists.

    I smiled at your comment about D. H. Lawrence. I have not read his poetry but his obsession with landscapes, trees, bushes, fruits, birds and such things is very apparent in his novels and I am simultaneous impressed and amused at how he seems to tie it all into his worldview. I will have to at least try one or two of his poems.

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  6. Richard - Good to know that, re Saramago; you won't be disappointed, I'm sure.

    Tom - It was a pity, I wanted to like it, but you know I cling to outdated things like plot.

    Nana - And I wish you could read them too, it'd always be less lonely :)

    Rise - Thanks; I do try to balance things, and I'm too curious and chaotic to stick to just one type of reading.

    Brian - I'm sure you'll like to know that I have a post about D.H. Lawrence's poetry coming.

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  7. Miguel - An impressive year for an impressive blog. I'm awed by both the quantity and quality of your choices - as well as by the rigor and insightfulness of your commentaries - and I eagerly look forward to reading what you'll have to say in 2014. I just took a peek at your post on Nabokov's Ada, long on my to-be-read list. And though I haven't read it, how refreshing to find a reader who doesn't simply describe it as "difficult" and pretty much leave it at that. I'm reading Malaparte's The Skin right now; like Kaputt, it's almost predestined to go on a best of the year list, and I'm barely a quarter of the way through it.

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    1. Seraillon, thank you. Perhaps you could take some time to go through my TBR list and pick 10 books. The more votes the merrier.

      The Skin wasn't a surprise, since Kaputt had prepared me for its greatness, but what a novel! Malaparte is a fascinating narrator, and his dark humour is peerless.

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