Ark volunteers pick and present their favourite reads of 2017.
The Melancholy of Resistance by László Krasznahorkai
What if sense requires a certain amount of nonsense to make sense? And what if you get too close to this nonsense inherent in the production of sense? Then, I wager, you get the surrealism of The Melancholy of Resistance by Hungarian author László Krasznahorkai.
Set in a quiet Hungarian town and seen through the eyes of four memorable characters, the reader finds herself witnessing a very strange unfolding of events: a wandering circus visits the town with their main attraction being a giant stuffed blue whale. Without saying too much, this blue whale sends the town on a spiralling descent into madness. But Krasznahorkai is not merely exercising Newtonian causality. Rather, the entrance of the whale shows that a space for it had always already been prepared. In a way, and this is what is exciting about the novel. Krasznahorkai manages to explore the apocalypse, to paraphrase Franz Kafka, the day before the apocalypse arrives.
If this sounds mysterious and intangible then this is precisely what the novel wants. The delight of reading Krasznahorkai lies simply in the impossibility of an answer to the question the reader constantly faces: what is going on? What the novel ultimately sets in motion – and not only in terms of its content – is an aesthetic experience of how nonsense forces the reader to search for and produce sense, while holding that sense does not merely abolish nonsense but, paradoxically, that the two are intimately intertwined.
Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass by Bruno Schulz
I don’t know how Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass ended on my never-ending list of all kinds of things for me to explore but I’m glad it did. At first I didn’t know it was book, but it sounded like a book title which it also turned out to be—a book from 1937 by Polish author Bruno Schulz.
In the beginning I found it boring because the first third of the book often lulled me to sleep or had me staring into the air thinking of something else. However, after I had to return it to the library (apparently somebody else wanted to read it), I began to miss it and I realised it wasn’t because I found the book boring that I sometimes ended up staring into the air – but because my thoughts while reading, as any other good book, became a part of the book itself.
The book is several stories as well as one. In fragments, the son of a struggling family narrates his and the lives around him in a time of change. And the change of time is just as relevant to tell the stories of his father, the peculiar extended family members and I guess time itself. Questions are asked as though the point was not to answer them but to make them grow in real and surreal sceneries which treat illusion and reality as though there were not any difference between them.
To me, the book appeared quiet but rich in its quietness – or to put it differently: Bruno Schulz puts so much life into so little. The long poetic descriptions of walks in the park and the smell of spring are as if they were descriptions of lifetimes.
And then he, just as poetically, let the despair fill the pages with the misery of life, the ones lived and the once unlived. But despite its darkness and heavy-hearted speculations it made me laugh. And it amazed me in its way to capture real life in the dreamiest ways.
And it must be the best book I’ve read this year because I feel I can read it over and over for the rest of my life and continue to be amazed.
Frederikke Nøhr Hemmingsen
New Forest by Josefine Klougart
Despite its title, New Forest is unfortunately still only available in Danish. However, as Klougart’s growing ouvre is slowly making its way into the English language, I hope someday to be able to bequeath this mastodon of a novel to someone who will cherish it as much as I did.
This is a novel that requires patience and time. Shifting between first and second person, between different times, and between different characters, the different voices of this novel feel interchangeable, as if you are reading the same story told through different eyes. As with Klougart’s other novels, what the story is is somewhat unclear. Over the 700 pages of the novel, you are left more importantly with a mood, a feeling like the somewhat pungent smell of moss and a crisp wind through your hair. These descriptions – of nature, of feelings, of flawed humanity – is what Klougart does best, and the narrative is carried forward by these images, overlayed onto each other like thick memories. Yet a pattern emerges – a pattern of women, in different ages, in different places, yet somehow interconnected and interwoven in silent events impressing themselves upon everyday life with an unbearable heaviness.
This was my favorite novel of the year because its sheer linguistic beauty took my breath away, because I felt Klougart had somehow dug up and exposed the most hidden of my female fears, and because I realized that, were I ever to write a novel, I would hope it would be something like this. Thank you, Josefine Klougart for saving me the trouble.
The Sellout by Paul Beatty
The Sellout was my pick for the final episode of the Ark Audio Book Club of 2017, to come out at the end of December, and so I am presently working on a review of it. This task is, however, nightmarish. When one reviews a book, it is often a matter of trying to accentuate the redeeming qualities of a work and attempting to understand the problematics of its failings. But when a book is so well crafted on the levels of its humour, logic, argument and the very poetry of its prose, as is the case with Paul Beatty’s award-winning fourth novel, it can be hard for a reviewer to feel they can add anything.
The Sellout tells the story of a black American man named _______ Me, an urban farmer living in Dickens, a struggling town in greater L.A. Me’s father was a frustrated academic psychologist and black liberation activist—the particular combination of which leads to a difficult upbringing—who is gunned down in cold blood by the LAPD. Later, Me’s neighbour, a retired former child actor in incredibly racist comedy films, Hominy Jenkins, tries to kill himself before Me saves him. Hominy is adrift in a world built on the myth of a post-racial society and, to get some sense of order back, offers himself up to Me as a Slave (albeit a useless one). This leads Me on a path to confront the successes and failures of the civil rights movement and the hypocrisies of conservatism and liberalism in ever more provocative ways.
Deploying a wide range of racial epithets, The Sellout explores the possibilities and limitations of transgression and the impotence and importance of identity with a deftness and density that I have rarely seen before. Almost nothing comes out unscathed, least of all the narrator, but each scathing feels justified and necessary. I have rarely if ever laughed so hard reading a novel while being so engaged with the complexities of its subject. The Sellout is a vital book for our times.
This Little Art by Kate Briggs
This Little Art is an essay by Kate Briggs published by Fitzcarraldo Editions earlier this year.
Now. Imagine someone had a simple yet beautiful analogue watch on her wrist. You are not a particular watch-fan, but neither are you indifferent. As you watch it, casually, she suddenly offers: ‘Why don’t we step inside and see how it works?’ ‘Sure’ you say and before you know it—not really sure how but that’s all right—you are inside, surrounded by wheels, cogs, strings, pallets and other parts you have no names for nor even ever had the slightest idea existed. Your guide smiles at your perplexion. As you smile back, you realise there is something in her smile that tells you it is also her own. Circumstances are fantastic but you are at ease. As you stroll around, she explains to you the inner workings and the purpose of every part. You get a chance to see each from all sides, at leisure: touch it and arrest its movement or just behold it and let it move and do its work. Not only does your guide introduce you to the mechanics of the thing—explaining the problems pertaining to this or that technical solution—she does so filtering her insights through her own praxis. Her skill in guiding you through—wise, personal and casual—is as enchanting as the mechanism itself. Soon you are lightheaded. And before you manage to take a minute to ask how she knows all of this, the familiar smile returns to her lips: ‘I was like you, not having much of an idea about watches’—she admits, amused—‘It’s just that one day I realised that it does not matter and that it’s possible to get inside if one really wants. And once I was in, I just could not force myself to leave. Soon I started watchmaking myself. This one: I made it.’
This Little Art is not about analogue watches, it’s about translation. But reading it is like taking such a journey—fantastic, intimate and fascinating.
Bonjour Tristesse by Françoise Sagan
As part of a series of my requirements for my American-based PhD, I went through a nasty process this spring commonly known as “Qualifying Exams,” which consisted of cramming a very long list of books into my head over a very short period of time that I was *supposed to* have read. This means, in other words, that I have read and re-read many books this year that could be called “big” or “important.” But the best book I read this year was very far from big, and I’m also not sure that too many would categorize it as Important. The best book I read this year was a slim, lovely, enchanting, and haunting piece of prose by Françoise Sagan called Bonjour Tristesse, which revolves around a seventeen-year old girl named Cécile and a series of love triangles. I read it over the summer, which is also the season the novel takes place in, and even though my summer in Denmark was probably (in terms of climate at least) quite different than the summer on the Mediterranean in the south of France described in the novel, and even though I am not seventeen, I still felt so many vibrations of resonance reading this book. But maybe that’s because this is just a book that vibrates, and that makes room for you, the reader, to slip into it in between the waves. Whether these waves comprise a few pages of lazy reading here and there on a beach somewhere, or a hungry devouring of the mere 130 pages huddled inside a café or your apartment during a summer downpour. The novel does read very quickly and the prose is deceptively simple, at times in the way that Marguerite Duras or Nathalie Sarraute’s writing can be. Which is also to say that the prose is simple in a way that seems crafted to make each little wave of emotion that is narrated utterly palpable. Apparently, Sagan wrote Bonjour Tristesse when she was only eighteen years old, which is perhaps easy to believe given the intense, and at times heartbreaking, vulnerability of the text and its protagonist, but also kind of impossible to understand, given how amazing this brief novel is.
(For those who prefer to read in Danish, a wonderful series at Gyldendal called Skala, which prints translations of under-recognized works of twentieth-century fiction, published a new Danish version of Bonjour Tristesse last year, translated by Birte Dahlgreen and Lilian Munk Rösing).
Gravity and Grace by Simone Weil
I must admit, the first time I heard about this book was through Chris Kraus’ Aliens & Anorexia, a book I actually didn’t enjoy as much as I was hoping to. Nevertheless, I guess I should thank Chris Kraus for writing that books because it introduced me to what I would think is one of the best books I have read in my life. One of those life-changing books, whatever that means. For me, Gravity and Grace is a life-changing book because it presented me with a new way of analysing my experience as a human, both at an individual and collective level, as well as a new way of awareness of myself as a conscious being with a system of thought and beliefs.
Gravity and Grace is about everything and nothing, and that is what Weil is reflecting upon. Literally, “to become nothing in order to become everything”. In this piece, Weil explores every part of our being as humans. Presented in short chapters no longer than a couple of pages, she explores different topics concerning the human experience, from time to the self, idolatry, love, or affliction. Making use of her graceful wording, but overall, keeping it as simple as it can be, she succeeds in her mission.
And that is one other remarkable fact that captured me. Weil’s way of writing is concise, exactly to the point. She is utterly aware that she is dealing with complex ideas, yet universal ones. She wants to make available to as many people as possible her thoughts, at the same time as writing as if she is only speaking to herself. She meticulously tears apart all the elements that make us human, paying attention to their contradictions, and trying to resolve them. Through her simple language, she finds the perfect means of transportation for her complex thoughts.
Satin Island by Tom McCarthy
Oh, Satin Island, Nothing Compares 2 U. Or, should I say, does no one compare like U, your narrator, who simply, yet un-aggressively, does not give a fuck about anything except for his own intellectual masturbation and theoretical gymnastics? For 222 pages you, and U, a corporate anthropologist tasked with composing the Great Report for the Company, remix and reappropriate philosophy and anthropology in order to sell shit to people. And we as readers love it.
U’s cleverness simultaneously attracts us with references to Deleuze and Malinowski, and pushes us away as we see this kind of banal stuff happening all the time in TED talks and Silicon Valley’s press releases. Yet you, and U, somehow make us feel like we are in on the game. In this day and age of cynicism, where sincerity is either beyond the bounds of possibility (looking at you, Youtube celebrities and rappers), or the subject of multi-volume, overly detailed autobiographies that alienate the writer’s friends and family (looking at you Knausgaard), you affirm our ironic/at-arms-length/cynical/pessimistic/apathetic stance towards the world and contemporaneously, you speak to the hope in our hearts that somehow, someway this all makes sense in the end and is worth taking seriously. But it’s too late for that. We’ve fucked it up (or rather never had a chance in hell anyways) and now we have to deal with it.
Oh, Satin Island, your cover says you are “Kafka for the Google Age,” but we both know that’s not true. You are something else, something special. Like Kowalski in Vanishing Point you take us for a ride, you have a task to perform but in the end, it simply cannot be carried out. You are here, and then you disappear. And I love you for it.