Posted on | December 20, 2011 | 2 Comments
I recently, and much belatedly, got around to reading Northrop Frye’s Anatomy of Criticism. It’s brilliant—not a word I use easily—and really deserves its own post, but there is a point on which Frye and I disagree, in practice if not in theory. “The demonstrable value-judgement,” he claims in his introduction, “is the donkey’s carrot of literary criticism, and every new critical fashion…has been accompanied by a belief that criticism has finally devised a definitive technique for separating the excellent from the less excellent.” Attacking Matthew Arnold for his effort to establish a pecking order among the great poets, Frye writes witheringly: “We begin to suspect that the literary value-judgements are projections of social ones. Why does Arnold want to rank poets?” His dismissal of such exercises is indisputable but for one omission: lists are fun. There’s a satisfaction to the categorizing and ordering, to the confidence of knowing in your bones that one book is better than another. It may not do justice to the works at hand, but the brain—or my brain, anyway—can’t help itself. And so, without further ado, my year in books:
Best New Novel(s): As discussed a couple posts ago, I came down favorably on the new Eugenides, but not for the reasons I anticipated. I was excited by the idea of a novel that took on novels as a subject, by the promise of a meta-masterpiece from an author I trusted to get it right. Instead, I found that The Marriage Plot has gotten too much credit for making a coherent claim about literature and not enough for its simpler pleasures as a Bildungsroman.
But not everything I read makes it onto Apostrophe, and my other favorite novel this year is a kind of zanier, and in its way more ambitious, obverse of The Marriage Plot. I expected The Tragedy of Arthur, by Arthur Phillips, to be all tricks and little substance. Phillips is an author I’d never taken particularly seriously, mostly because unlike the writers with whom he shares a demographic—Eugenides, Franzen, Lethem—he doesn’t beg to be taken seriously. I read and liked Prague a few years ago, but in the kind of way that made me want to go live out my expat fantasies in Budapest rather than in the kind of way that made me want to keep reading his work. Phillips’s apparent lack of interest in jockeying for literary status makes The Tragedy of Arthur’s vexing questions of authenticity and authorship all the more intriguing: What makes a work great? Where does artistic power end and consensus begin? He’s talking about Shakespeare, but one might ask the same questions of some of his peers. (Was Freedom really that good?) I could take or leave Phillips’s faux-Shakespeare play (or is that only because I know it’s not Shakespeare?) but the novel posing, Pale Fire-style, as an introduction to the play manages to do what The Marriage Plot couldn’t quite: it uses fiction to address, and challenge, some of our most closely-held assumptions about why and how we read. It’s also, I should add, extraordinarily funny.
Best Old Novel: The Radetzky March. Of all the books I read this year, Joseph Roth’s chronicle of European decay is the only one that contends for the “Best Books of All Time” list that I keep in my head. As I make my way through his letters, the fact that his life—peripatetic, impoverished, paranoid, drunk—could have produced a work so quietly beautiful and dignified makes The Radetzky March seem all the more miraculous.
Best New Old Novel: Melville House’s new Neversink Library has brought many authors back from the brink of disappearance (for an English-speaking audience, at least) and I have them to thank for introducing me to Irmgard Keun’s After Midnight.
Best Novel Everybody Liked But Me: As reviews and year-end round-ups continue to salute the greatness of Teju Cole’s Open City, I’m starting to feel crazy. What am I missing? While I still think the novel struggles to carry its weight, so enthralled is it with its own seriousness, thoughtful pieces like Karan Mahajan’s have persuaded me to grudgingly respect it, if not to actually like it. It’s not you, Open City, it’s me.
Most Disappointing Classic: Sometimes, when my reading and thoughts are beginning to feel aimless, the only solution is to pick up a fat, nineteenth century novel—ideally of British extraction. I wanted to love Vanity Fair and instead found it at best disjointed, at worst cruel. My Penguin Classics edition insists that Vanity Fair is “the only English novel that challenges comparison with Tolstoy’s War and Peace.” Not even close. Thackeray seems to relish degrading his characters, where Tolstoy despairs at the trials of Pierre and Natasha even as he creates them.
Best Novel I Reread: Heinrich Böll’s The Clown. Still awesome.
Best Book I Failed to Finish: 2011 was the year that I, apparently along with half of America, discovered Geoff Dyer. I’ve been dipping into and out of his essay collection Otherwise Known as the Human Condition and while some subjects appeal to me more than others (I can’t quite get into the essays on photography) it’s impossible not to admire the range of his curiosity.
Books I’m Most Excited for In 2012: Lots to choose from! At the top of my mental pile: Men in Space, Tom McCarthy’s debut novel, as-yet-unpublished in the US, and The Lady in Gold—a portrait, as it were, of Klimt’s “Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer.”