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The Best Reads of 2020 – arkbooks
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The Best Reads of 2020

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The Necrophiliac by Gabrielle Wittkop

If this unbelievable year brought something good it’s that I finally found the time to read more books than usual and, luckily, many were really good ones. Of all them, one that will always remain with me is The Necrophiliac by Gabrielle Wittkop. As my 96 -year -old friend Ulla said when we discussed it, “When one is so old and has read many books, one can have the feeling that every book is just like the other, that one has already read it. It’s really difficult to find something that surprises you”. I’m not implying that I have read as many books as Ulla, and probably I never will, but this book was definitely something I’ve never tasted before. 

Narrated in first person it tells the story of Lucien, an antique dealer with a sexual orientation that encompasses death. Through an almost poetic narration we get to know in detail his anonymous lovers, who have in common the putrefaction of the skin and the smell of bombyx. We follow him in his adventures to the cemetery, robbing tombs, and to the lonely darkness of his room, where the French writer is able to elevate to art this forbidden game in a literary piece that borders morbidity. 

The Necrophiliac is a disturbing book, creepy and repulsive, but that I found incredibly beautiful at the same time. Gabrielle manages to describe these sexual encounters through such refined language that I had to admire every sentence. How many times can she use the word bombyx in a 90 page novella?? Sometimes I needed to stop, to process what I was reading and what was being described… I’m not going to deny it, I also had nightmares while reading it. But hey! Do I like happy and easy books? Hell no. 

The story made me face my own mortality, proposing an uncomfortable topic and making it look so usual that it even explores the intrinsic aspects of every human relation: loneliness, passion, intimacy, despair, love and hate. 

Not a book for sensitive stomachs but something that, for sure, won’t leave you indifferent.


On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong

Let me start this with three propositions. 1: How to describe a book that neither lets itself be defined by form or genre? 2: What to write about this book that has not already been written? 3: What made the first novel from Vietnamese-American Ocean Vuong take everyone by storm and – despite his young age (born 1988) – propel him to literary stardom? The reasons for these three propositions are manifold, here, however, I will only briefly mention one suggestion for each. 

First of all, it is a small miracle that a book that is autofiction, fiction, prose, poetry and theory does not make its reader suffer from its lack of formal structure. It does not produce such suffering, as its protagonist, Vuong himself, so carefully invites his dyslexic mom – to whom the book is written – as well as the reader into his double-bind of a universe. His love and hatred of his mom are equally important and equally constitutive, which makes genre and form overlap. 

Secondly, as this book has been met with such universal acclaim, I do not care to produce yet another analysis, but rather some of the feelings I encountered when I read it. Not only were Vuong’s feelings so thickly present, that I as a reader could not avoid feeling immense joy, heartbreak and everything in between. I have close to nothing in common with Vuong’s protagonist, yet, from the first page, I was destined to take part in his emotional rollercoaster. In that way, this is the most beautiful book I have ever written.

Thirdly and finally, it is exactly because the genre and form of the book IS its theme, that it becomes very easy to participate in the story. And also, it’s cover is almost as beautiful as the text itself!


In Youth Is Pleasure by Denton Welch

Denton Welch’s In Youth Is Pleasure, was more or less thrust into my hands. The quaint design of the 2005 Enitharmon edition (the novel was first published in 1945), that improbable author name, and a quick outline of the plot, together did nothing to recommend the book to me. For reasons best not explored here, I do not actively seek out novels about hyper-sensitive, upper-middle class English adolescents. “Proustian detail” is also not high on my list of interests. So to choose this book for our end of year list is also to highlight the pleasure of being completely won over by a novel. 

The “pleasure” in the title is at least partly an ironic one, as its protagonist, Orvil Pym, spends quite a substantial amount of the novel in exquisite agony. Having escaped his naturally terrifying boarding school for the summer holidays, he is plunged into fresh horrors at the prospect of spending time with his inhumanly distant father, unpredictable brothers, and, lurking in the awkward silences, the ghost of his glamorous, joyful, dead mother. 

The character of Orvil and Welch’s prose are hard to tease apart, equally funny, loveable, horny, out of joint, queer and preternaturally clever. It is a strange enough world to us thanks to the intervening three quarters of a century, but to Orvil it is a land populated by complete aliens. His attempt to feign delirium at school succeeds precisely because it is so outlandish: “I’m a frog, I’m a frog, a huge white frog.” A little later, his feelings towards his older brother Charles are summed up in one simple, devastating line: “Orvil had not yet learned to bear the strain of feeling unsafe with another person.”

In Youth Is Pleasure captures in crystalline form the vividness and rawness of adolescence, the extreme horniness with no object, the glorious combination of sophistication and ignorance. It also makes an argument for poetry residing precisely in this weird interzone (not for nothing Burroughs was a fan), as evidenced in the rhymes that Orvil makes up throughout the novel, not to make sense out of the senseless, but to mimic it, place himself within it.


On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong

One of my best reads in the beginning of 2020 was On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong. I thought it to be a beautiful love-letter, which spares no cruelty by touching upon several people and moments and looking at love-relations in their complexity. In so many different topics Ocean Vuong points towards the variety that lies within them. There are moments, where he addresses the streets, to then slowly sink through the grid and show the field that lies behind. 

He uses this image, when he talks about being lost (a gem, I personally think). ‘The rules, like streets, can only take you to known places. Underneath the grid is a field – it was always there – where to be lost is never to be wrong, but simply more.’ 

I like him pointing to situations, which are ‘more’, i. e. those moments in between or where one replaces the other. Where we suddenly lose the streets, which were never there in the first place, but which we needed in order to conduct ourselves and after a while forgot that they are only constructs. Sometimes constructs of beauty, but nevertheless constructed. 

He does it with bodies and words. They can be separated when differing from one another or intersecting, but there are these moments when one replaces the other and they can’t be told apart from one another. Communication with bodies for instance, rather than with the tongue, because the tongue wouldn’t do (one replaces the other), but then moments, where bodies can’t communicate with the clarity and simplicity of which words are capable (it’s where they differ).

He does it not only with bodies and words, but in other parts as well:

‘The Greeks thought sex was the attempt of two bodies separated long ago, to return to one life. I don’t know if I believe this but that’s what it felt like: as if we were two people mining one body, and in doing so, merged until no corner was left saying I.’ 

Here he describes his insecurity believing in what the Greeks said, leading to an experience, which gets close to what he might or might not believe in. It shows the ‘simply more’ mentioned in the quote earlier and the clarity lying in the complexity. 

I think it’s interesting that one of Ben Lerner’s topics is the loss of language, especially in his last book The Topeka School, which I read shortly after On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous. When reading Ben Lerner, I felt that he doesn’t go far enough. He is still too bound by language. He’s good at describing how these moments – in which language disappear or are lost – look like, but Ocean Vuong allows much more for the language to dissolve. Dissolve underneath the grid and into the field. 

Anne Kristin

The Tender Barbarian by Bohumil Hrabal 

The Tender Barbarian by Bohumil Hrabal was my best read of 2020, even if to be perfectly correct, I have only read half of it. 

The other half was read by my lifelong friend, Piotr. We took turns reading this short, fantastic (and apparently quite inaccurate) account of the life of a Czech avant-garde explosionist artist and author’s friend, Vladimír Boudník. We took turns reading the book aloud to each other over the course of the two weeks we spent together this autumn, reviving our long forgotten practice of sharing literature. In this way, the story that is—in its core—a celebration of friendship, became a vehicle to celebrate ours. 

Being able to take a glimpse of the streets and establishments of Communist-era Prague, frequented by Vladimir and the narrator, occasionally accompanied by a writer-philosopher Egon Bondy, in search for Pilzens and inspiration, was a unique pleasure, since no matter what they happened to come across on their numerous escapades, they would always—thanks largely to Vladimir’s extraordinary ability to delight in the simplest of things—manage to turn their lives into an adventure, into an unknown, into an opening into some other dimension. The Tender Barbarian praises the art of letting life be an endless cascade of inspirations and awe.

At the same time, the book illustrates how such life cannot happen if it is not reflected in others, in those we find so close. It is living the situations together, a sort of co-sensing the world with someone with which one feels so in tune—though never melting into one—that, I believe, allowed the Doctor and Vladimir to shape the mundane Prague into the incredible place they did. And, on another level, it is this same co-partaking in a story that happened through our declamations with Piotr, strangely blurring the line between the reality and the very story that we read.


Entangled Life by Merlin Sheldrake

Entangled Life is a book about the social life of the fungal network’s. Merlin Sheldrake explains in relatively simple terms biological processes that I (probably) have been explained to before and had not understood much. His narration of the Fungal world moves like the mycorrhizal networks he describes; It expands linking ideas that would typically belong in different realms, feeding from  them to create a wholesome picture of Fungal life. 

Sheldrake’s narration is outstanding not only because of the eclectic body of work he builds on: from Tsing to McKenna via Lynn Margulis or McCoy. But because of the insight, he allows the reader into a non-anthropocentric universe.

My favourite thing about this book was not how easy it was to read, but more of how it affected me. After finishing, I took a stroll through the forest and spotted more mushrooms than I had ever done before. Maybe the author’s explanation of how the whole forest ecosystem works underground primed me to spot them, but it made me feel more attuned to the world around me.

Virginia / @cliff.hanger.books

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