I’m continuing my series of posts going through the books I read over the last decade, this time with 2013.
For the record, I would like to point out that I was reading Alice Munro’s last book Dear Life at the very beginning of 2013, months before she won the Nobel Prize for Literature later that year. And what a well deserved win that was, proof that there is after all some justice in the world. I only point the timing because of course once she’d won the prize I saw people reading her books everywhere around me, I couldn’t help that snarky, readerly self-importance: I liked her before the Nobel!
2013 was a year that I remember for its writing more than I do for its reading. I was living in Vancouver, doing an MFA in Creative Writing. I had started working on my thesis at the end of 2012, a novel about three brothers caught up in a terrorist organization fighting for the independence of Québec, and so most of 2013 was spent drafting that manuscript. The previous year I had discovered Hubert Aquin, the post-modern Québecois writer who committed suicide in 1977, not too far from where I went to college in Montreal. I wanted to model my novel on his work, and read another one of his books that summer. I remember feeling energized by his writing, discovering that a Québecois writer was trying to emulate great, global writers like Nabokov felt very exciting. That’s why I also read Gordon Shepard’s excellent HA!: A Self-Murder Mystery, which is a long book, written in English, that explores Hubert Aquin’s suicide. It’s the sort of book that shouldn’t exist, really, because it’s so niche (who reads Aquin? Who reads Aquin in English? Who reads a book about Aquin in English?). But it’s profoundly moving and extremely interesting, and so I’m glad that someone was willing to write it, and someone else was willing to publish it!
G. was finishing up her master’s degree at Oxford in the spring so I went to visit her for a few weeks. I had seen an exhibit on Art Spiegelman at a museum in Vancouver and wanted to write about it for the literary website The Millions. I remember writing an essay about Maus in a coffee place that was set up above a bike shop in Oxford. The coffee was delicious, it felt nice to have all this time in front of me to read and think about books. I’m fairly sure it was my mother who gave me Richard Powers’ The Time of Our Singing, a somewhat laborious but breathtaking book about music and race in America. Since then Powers has won the Pulitzer for a novel about trees, but my second memory from my weeks in Oxford is reading The Time of Our Singing on a park bench while G. was working on a paper in the library. An old lady sat next to me and, thinking that I was studying and wanting to encourage me, gave me half of her KitKat bar. She said I reminder her of her son.
I love Al Alvarez although I don’t think ever wrote anything better than The Writer’s Voice. He really represents another generation, he was a 20th century man of letters who ended up in the 21st century as by accident. During that same trip in England I visited (discovered?) my favourite book store, The London Review Bookshop in Bloomsbury. I can’t remember what else I bought but I know I spotted a new Al Alvarez in the window: Pondlife. It’s a very moving diary, focused around the swimming ponds on Hampstead Heath where he went to swim whenever he got the chance, and whatever the season. It’s also a book about aging, and about giving things up.
I originally wrote that last paragraph in the present tense but I recently learned that Alvarez passed away in 2019. He was 90, so I’d been expecting the news, but still. What a shocker. He was a brilliant and somewhat undervalued writer. The Writer’s Voice should be required reading for creative writing programs.
What else? I finally got around to reading Nabokov’s Pale Fire and loved it. Funny to see James Salter on my list, as I was just re-reading A Sport and a Pastime this summer — working as I was on my own “France” novel, with some sex in it. Back in 2013 I read Salter for just that reason, because I’d heard somewhere that he was great at writing sex scenes, which of course he is. His style is a little tight for my taste but he has some beautiful, precise prose in that book, and it’s so atmospheric.
Malarky is the debut novel of Irish-Canadian author Anakana Schofield, whom I interviewed in the summer of 2013 for the website of PRISM international magazine. That was one of the interesting aspects of being in a writing program: meeting writers for the first time, having long conversation about craft and books. It made the whole experience of writing feel more legitimate, in a way. Although the author told me Malarky was quite tame, all things considered, I think with its looping style and strongly voiced prose it’s safe to say that this book is experimental, and it makes me realize how much I was going for “difficult” reads, or at least books that pushed the boundaries of fiction with writers like Aquin, Nabokov, Anne Carson, Réjean Ducharme… Even Elizabeth Bowen, whose books I usually adore but whose WWII-novel The Heat of the Day I found dense. It left me, well, rather cold.
At the other end of the spectrum, perhaps, is a novel that purported to be experimental in its structure since the plotting and characters were based on astrology, although in fact it was more traditional, Dickensian in its voice, pacing, and plot. I ended the year with The Luminaries, which came out that summer and won the Booker Prize that fall (and was recently made into a BBC mini series). There’s always a certain pleasure to reading a book just as it comes out, to dive right into the hype alongside everyone else. I remember the book somewhat well; I remember the voice, and some of the scenes flash in my memory. As I recall, Catton uses the adjective “fat” a few too many times in the opening chapters, and I remember that for all it’s careful plotting and multiplying characters I was a bit disappointed at the end of the book, as the chapters became shorter and shorter — waning as they are meant to — we are left with a trite flashback about rain falling, and love.
Reading List: 2013
Alice Munro, Dear Life
Joël Dicker, La vérité sur l’affaire Harry Québert
ZZ Packer, Drinking Coffee Elsewhere
Lucien Bouchard, Lettres à un jeune politicien
David Malouf, An Imaginary Life
Seamus Heaney, Seeing Things
Gordon Shepard, HA!: A Self-Murder Mystery
Anne Carson, Autobiography of Red
Gabriel Josipovici, Whatever Happened to Modernism?
Noel Streatfield, Sapplings
Denys Arcand, Euchariste Moisan
David Bellos, Is That a Fish in Your Ear?
Art Spiegelman, Maus
Richard Powers, The Time of Our Singing
Elizabeth Bowen, The Heat of the Day
Anakana Schofield, Malarky
Al Alvarez, Pondlife
Cesar Aira, The Literary Conference
Vladimir Nabokov, Pale Fire
Mordecai Richler, Barney’s Version
John le Carré, Smiley’s People
Hubert Aquin, Trou de mémoire
Alan Moore, V for Vendetta
Alice Oswald, Memorial
James Salter, A Sport and a Pastime
Ben Downing, Queen Bee of Tuscany
César Aira, Varamo
Keith Maillard, Running
Réjean Ducharme, L’Avalée des avalées
Adam Gopnik, Winter
Wajdi Mouawad, Forêts
Louis Hamelin, La Constellation du Lynx
Joseph Boyden, The Orenda
Eleanor Catton, Luminaries
Francis Spufford (ed.), The Antarctic