The obsessive-compulsive folks (and their algorithms) at Goodreads.com tell me that I completed 24 books in 2013. My stats page helpfully points out that the longest book I read this year was The Visual Arts: A History, by Hugh Honour, at 992 pages. (Curiously, no ‘shortest book’ stat is provided.) Most of the books I read this year come from two meta-lists I created: (1) Best Fiction Since 1900; and (2) Best Literature of All Time – Chronological. Of the 24 books I read in 2013, I gave the following seven a five-star rating:
Great Dialogues of Plato (c. 400 BCE). By Plato. Translated by W.H.D. Rouse.
I’m cheating a little here – I only read the Apology, the Symposium and the Crito. I read The Republic, too, but in a different translation (Grube). But I did read several of the other dialogues in a philosophy course in 1979, if that helps any. It is interesting to watch Plato go from Socrates’ chronicler to a philosopher with his own ideas (which he nevertheless continues to attribute to Socrates – an early example of branding?).
The Book of Disquiet (1935). By Fernando Pessoa. Translated by Richard Zenith.
I read this book from my Best Literature list out of chronological order because of our April 2013 trip to Portugal. I wasn’t disappointed. Pessoa’s narrator (Bernardo Soares, one of his many avatars) is an early existentialist (whole passages of Sartre’s Nausea appear to be cribbed from Disquiet) or perhaps undiagnosed depressive whose thoughts and emotions impart a dark-flavored energy onto everything in his exterior and interior world. He seems to find comfort in describing the minute details of the view from his office window or the surface of his desk. I can see why bookstores in the university towns of Portugal sell Pessoa t-shirts, even now, 75 years after his death.
Memoirs of Hadrian (1951). By Marguerite Yourcenar. Translated by Grace Frick.
A Roman emperor looks back on his life with a well-developed sense of himself and his opinions, a remarkable recall for names, places and events, and an uncanny ability to objectively assess both his strengths and weaknesses. Hadrian was a real emperor and this narrative is steeped in the facts of his life and times as they have survived. And yet while there is little (perhaps no) dialogue in Hadrian’s recitation, there is no question that it is a work of fiction and not history. Changing from the third person to the first person is not merely a grammatical change – we hear a historical character speaking to us through time.
Molloy; Molone Dies; The Unnameable (1951-1953). By Samuel Beckett.
It may be some kind of aesthetic crime to try and describe Beckett’s trilogy in my lazy prose. Each of Beckett’s sentences seems hewn in stone – it is impossible to imagine them any other way. He is postmodern in the sense that he doesn’t believe you can read a novel without knowing that it is a fiction, created by an author, for a reader, and therefore all these concepts – “fact” “fiction” “character” “author” “reader” “novel” – are subject to change without notice. Is the protagonist of all three novels the same character? Is there a protagonist or character, in any previously-understood sense, in the third novel at all? And, finally, how many stones does it have in its pocketses? This is one of those rare books, like Moby Dick, Ulysses, and Gravity’s Rainbow, that I look forward to re-reading, and re-re-reading, and so on, for there seem to be endless depths to plumb.
A Death in the Family (1957). By James Agee.
With its shifting narrative perspectives, carefully-drawn scenes; and an ability to convey powerful emotions without manipulation or sentimentality, this story is at its heart a simple story about a boy and his father.
Invisible Cities (1972). By Italo Calvino. Translated by Willliam Weaver.
Marco Polo describes to Genghis Khan the amazing places he has seen on his travels. One is more fantastic than the next. Each description is a little prose poem. Borges comes to mind. But if the cities aren’t ‘real’, are they nevertheless real in some other sense? And what do these conversations mean to Polo and Khan?
Conversations with Scorcese (Paperback edition, 2013). By Richard Schickel.
In the old days, directors denied that they had any agenda, any intellectual underpinnings or philosophical outlook. John Ford and Howard Hawks would tell you they just want to tell a story – point the camera and turn it on. Of course, these were deceptions, but while reading reviewer/documentarian Richard Schickel’s conversations with Martin Scorcese on life, the universe and Goodfellas. I wondered if there can be deception in a wall of words, a mask hidden behind the appearance of revealing secrets, telling all. Here we learn details about Scorcese’s childhood and life as a director, as well as stories about each of his movies, and his thoughts on more technical aspects of moviemaking. I raced through it and wished for more.
I didn’t see any five-star movies in 2013 (excluding David Lean’s Great Expectations, which I’d seen before), but I did see quite a few movies that rated 4.5, which is often as good as it gets these days.
Pickup on South Street (Fuller, 1953)
San Soleil (Marker, 1983)
I Shot Andy Warhol (Harron, 1996)
The Piano Teacher (Haneke, 2001)
Ten (Kiarostomi, 2002)
Dogtooth (Lanthimos, 2009)
Marwencol (Malmberg, 2010)
Amour (Haneke, 2012)
Frances Ha (Baumbach, 2012)
Before Midnight (Linklater, 2013)
Blue Jasmine (Allen, 2013)
Nebraska (Payne, 2013)