Christmas bought me a pile of books and has kept me going for most of January- and much to my delight, they’ve each been good reads.
First up was Limonov by Emmanuel Carrere. I’d read a few disparaging things about Carrere (the pompousness of a Parisian intellectual) and whilst I could see where those people were coming from- there are a few sentences here and there that make the toes curl, and there is a lingering feeling of self-importance- I enjoyed the entangling of Limonov’s story with Carrere’s. The non-fiction-fiction tag is something that really interests me and I feel that Limonov brings attention to an element of Soviet history that I was not that aware of before- i.e. the dissidents abroad, and Limonov himself seems to encapsulate the stark nature of politics in post-Soviet Russia, and perhaps Europe as a whole.
I then read Scholastique Mukasonga’s Our Lady of the Nile, a beautifully written story about a girl’s Catholic school in post-independence Rwanda, subtly surveying the socio-political landscape that the Belgian colonialists left behind, and the fallout from which the genocide of 1994 grew out of. There is so much going on in the unsaid in this book: the role of Catholicism in Colonialism, the Hutu-Tutsi demarcation, the origins of modern Christianity, and generally being a young woman in a newly liberated society; and the book skillfully balances these issues with a really strong voice that speaks with such conviction. Highly, highly recommended.
Next was Agota Kristof’s The Notebook from the ever-brilliant CB editions, a book that I’ve wanted to read for a while but hadn’t got round to. I had the immense and very rare pleasure of reading this book in one sitting, across a train, a tube and two buses, and had that beautiful experience where when reading something so encapsulating, the outside world dissolves into a distant memory. I tried to describe The Notebook after reading it to a friend, but I just couldn’t get the words out of my mouth as it is a work of such a profound feeling that you end up just stuttering “you…you…jjjjj just HAVE to read it”. So I don’t think I’m going to succeed any better in words here, but what I will say is that it perhaps the most powerful book that I’ve read for quite some time, if ever. It is unflinching in its surveying of the human condition and the moral obligations and influences that pepper our lives, and the two twin boys in the story have such a taught concept of morality, that it makes the reader question their own perceptions of what is right and what is the way to lead a fulfilling human life.
Following that is quite a tough gig for any author, but Daniel Kehlmann’s F was a worthy follow-up. F is interestingly is also about twins and the concept of identity, and also this idea of doing what is right, but F has a comedic element to it which is very enjoyable. Eric is a banker with no money; Martin is a priest who doesn’t believe, and Ivan is an artist who constructs the life of a dead artist by making art under his name, signed as from the time of the artist’s life. The F of the title seems to be of ‘Fate’ and how we can attach meaning to what might be deemed to be ‘fate’ rather than it being merely the result of a network of meaningless events and occurrences. F could also be for family as the boys’ Father rebels against his duties as a Father to pursue his literary career after a strange encounter with a hypnotist, an experience that the four of them never recover from. Enjoyable, yes, mind-blowing, not quite.
Next on my list is Elena Ferrante’s Day of Abandonment which I’m very intrigued to read after hearing such good things about her work, and 60ish pages in- I am not disappointed. Also on the pile are Ben Lerner’s 10:04, Honor Gavin’s Midland, David Markson’s Wittgenstein’s Mistress, and the first Karl Ove Knausgaard which I’m really not sure about, but I feel like I need to read it to see what all the fuss is about…..