Reading Highlights – 2013.

As I sit here eating just-one-more-Santa-shaped-chocolate I contemplate a good year in reading.

Here are some highlights from my reading in 2013:

Memoir:

Patti Smith (2010). Just Kids. London: Bloomsbury.

Patti Smith is perhaps best known for her ground-breaking 1975 album Horses and the work she has done as a poet and performer since. The famous and arresting album cover of Horses features a portrait of Smith by Robert Mapplethorpe, who went on to great fame as a photographer. This famous shot comes from the time in both Smith and Mapplethorpe’s lives that Just Kids documents.

Just Kids narrates the determination, grit, ambition and dreaminess of Smith’s years as a new arrival in New York and her intense relationship with Mapplethorpe. The two of them explore their way into their respective artistic vocations, meanwhile watching each other’s backs, stoking each other’s creative fires, and being a witness to each other’s emergence into viable artistic careers.

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Just Kids cover

Smith’s writing is intense, personal, confessional and intimate. She presents a luminous picture of a vanished world of the New York art scene and demi monde of the late 1960s – late 1970s. It is all here – Hotel Chelsea, where Smith and Mapplethorpe holed up during their romantic friendship; Warhol’s famous circle; seedy but vibrant neighbourhoods where up-and-coming artists mingled with junkies, psychiatric cases, and others marginal. I ended up reading this book with a notebook by my side where I would jot down the names of those I wanted to look up later. Her memoir is both a map to the New York avant-garde of the day, and an account of one woman’s decision to become the person she was meant to be. It is also, poignantly, an elegy for Smith’s lost friend, who died in 1989.

Novel:

Karl Ove Knausgaard. (English Translation 2013, Don Bartlett). A Man in Love. My Struggle: Book 2. London: Harvill Secker.

my struggle 2

Knausgaard’s project in his six volume My Struggle seems nothing less than the search for a new form. The result – called a “novel” but clearly based on daily events in the author’s own life – narrates the quest to find meaning and produce something new, despite living in this exhausted period a century after modernism.

A Man in Love is the second volume in Knausgaard’s project. In it he struggles with, among other things, the task of becoming a writer and writing something worthwhile amid a pressing reality that is in equal parts banal and fantastic. Calling the series My Struggle seems provocative, and I do not quite know what to make of the overt nod to Hitler’s autobiography. Perhaps it is a deliberate appropriation and reversal of the grandiose claims of a tyrant to title the humble and quotidian concerns of Knausgaard’s author-protagonist. In A Man in Love, the narrator’s main “struggle” seems to be balancing the demands of marriage and parenting small children with the demands of an artistic career. In this way, the ‘struggle’ appeals to the straightened, time-poor circumstances of any working parent trying to manage the competing commitments of love and work and art while trying to be something more than just a workhorse/consumer.

I read the first in the My Struggle series purely by chance. A Death in the Family was on a display shelf at the library at work. I liked the cover with its forlorn weatherboard house. The Scandinavian name caught my interest because I had recently enjoyed some fiction by fellow Norwegian Per Petterson. I went home and found the writer’s excruciating honesty about his awkward adolescence and his difficult relationship with his father mesmerising. A full third of the A Death in the Family dealt with Knausgaard and his brother cleaning his father’s home after he dies of alcoholism. That a writer would devote so much attention to the sheer labour of cleaning a house that was filthy, cluttered and destitute from neglect on one level seemed bizarre and a burden on the reader. On another level it was an audacious move and surprisingly cathartic as the reader follows the narrator’s efforts to exorcise the squalor of his father’s addiction and their disappointing relationship through the powers of bleach and cleaning fluids.

a death in the family

Overtly sourced from Knausgaard’s own daily grind, My Struggle: Book 2 details the author’s own labour to become a writer amidst the chaos and interruptions of marriage and raising small children.  Having left his native Norway for Sweden, Knausgaard struggles with the subtle linguistic, class and cultural nuances of a country that, for all its proximity, accentuates different values. Knausgaard’s narrative vacillates between the high registers of philosophical discussions between the author and his friend Geir about the nature of art, the creative life and efforts to write well, and the low registers of descriptions of smoking, drinking, cooking, and the rigors of looking after small children. The author’s yearning for the quiet and time necessary to create the writing most essential to his own sense of living a meaningful and effective life is pitted directly against the demands of family living. In particular, scenes of desperate parenting amid screaming toddlers and the rhythms of housekeeping are vivid in their unrelenting portrayal of the labours of everyday life. I, for one, heartily sympathised with Knausgaard’s moments of ambivalence when, no matter how much ‘in love’ one is with one’s family, there are times when the chief desire is to find a quiet place and be left alone. I read A Man in Love on the strength of the strange momentum Knausgaard seems able to generate from the most unpromising material – that, and the warm, complex voice that comes off the page. I look forward to Volume 3.

Australian novelist Richard Flanagan was also enthused by Knausgaard’s work.

Poetry

Seamus Heaney Field Work. (1976). New York: Farrar Straus Giroux.

field work heaney

By coincidence, Heaney died just as I was teaching his poetry to my Year 11 IB English class. This contact with his poetry reignited my interest in this frankly lyrical man who was so comfortable combining his own voice with the voices of mythology, past poets, and the bog-deep sources of the Irish and English languages themselves. His death heightened my sense of the preciousness of his work, given that it would no longer be elaborated on or added to. I have long enjoyed teaching the small selection we use in the course. I like Heaney’s attention to earthly details, to memory, to craft. He is an ‘approachable’ poet – rarely arch or ironic in that detached, distanced, urbane way. Instead, his work nourishes and feeds the reader even if his material is often hardship, squandered possibility, grief, violence and loss.

In Field Work, Heaney draws on all the sources of his experience, the loss of friends, the sectarian violence that was severing and ruining his country, his love of his wife, and the endless, fertilizing source of the landscape. Many of the poems synthesise these elements of Heaney’s life, as in “Polder” where a reunion with his wife is neatly conflated with a reunion with the land and origins that feed the poet’s identity and his art:

I have reclaimed my polder,

All its salty grass and mud-slick banks;

Under fathoms of air, like an old willow

I stir a little on my creel of roots

(“Polder”).

Many of the poems are elegies for those killed by sectarian violence, while others ponder Heaney’s role as poet in a land where words seem at times both useless and necessary, a “tentative art” (“Casualty”). I thoroughly enjoyed reading this work, its searching quality, its confession of not having any neat or grand solutions, and the unfinished love that animates so many of its poems.

So …those were some of the highlights. I will have to write up the next few titles anon.

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