Right now, the book that I read in 2011 that exists most powerfully in my mind is The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge by Rainer Maria Rilke. Rilke, of course, is best known as a poet, and this was the only novel he wrote. Perhaps that is why it functions like no novel I have ever read. The book consists of Brigge’s experiences of Paris (and they are obviously autobiographical to an extent, as Rilke visited Paris for the first time at about the same age as Brigge). In this series of self-contained journal entries, Rilke creates a portrait of something powerful and mysterious (something that would later come to inhabit the fiction of Kafka and Beckett), bound together by a poetic logic. I would like to some day take apart some of these sections just to figure out how they worked, but I think to do that I might have to destroy them, as sometimes happens with paintings when scientists peel them apart to see what is underneath the final layers of paint.
To continue with the literature/painting metaphor, I’ll also recommend The Prose of the World by the French critic and philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty. This was his final book, and it remains uncompleted, and in it are expressed remarkable thoughts about the nature of language and its relationship to perception. I’m not too versed in the inter-relationships of French philosophers, but I can only guess that Merleau-Ponty in some way anticipated or instructed Roland Barthes, as there is much correspondence between the writing of both men.
My Two Worlds is a dance, a seduction that draws us right up to the palpable center and then fades away to the margin, drawing one back toward that center before fading into another marginal space — back and forth, round and round. It is that same haze of thought one feels when hovering around an idea that remains unelucidatable. Yet the book is merely Chejfec’s thoughts over the course of a walk. It is two hours of serpentine meditation, that same maddening dart and weave between significance and insignificance, transcendence and babble. The best description for the book — one that might also be suitable for Sebald — is to call My Two Worlds a fragmentation of gazes.
As for a second book, I have to give pride of place to my friend Barrett Hathcock’s first novel, The Portable Son, just published by Aqueous Books. Obviously I’m biased (although I have been publishing Barrett for five years at The Quarterly Conversation, so it’s not like I’m a latecomer), so don’t take my word for it — take the word of Publishers Weekly, which gave the book a starred review and wrote, “Hathcock writes haunting, unforgettable stories.” Or you could take Michael Martone, who writes, “The Portable Son makes new the New South effortlessly, effervescently, and endlessly.” Or Diane Johnson: “Barrett Hathcock is a writer I know and think is one to watch. I look forward to the debut of his work.”
And just to toss a few final 2011 releases at you: Never Any End to Paris by Enrique Vila-Matas, Suicide by Edouard Levé, Lightning Rods by Helen DeWitt, and George Craig’s excellent pamphlet on translating Beckett, Writing Beckett’s Letters.
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