The following eleven books are the best I read in 2012. Once again, the selection is overrun by books published by NYRB Classics; they published five of the books below. When I went through my reading year to make this list, I certainly didn’t favor any particular publisher over another; they really do suit my tastes, which have continued to veer towards modernism and literature in translation, places where I think the authors still allow doubt and the complexity of thought to show up in their complex sentences.
Here they are in the order in which I reviewed them:
Milton Rokeach: The Three Christs of Ypsilanti (original review January 25, 2012) – My brother and I dug into this book together, each interested in the topic: Milton Rokeach, a doctor at Ypsilanti State Hospital, put together three men who each claimed to be Jesus Christ, hoping he could study the effects of this conflict on their identities. Over the course of two years, these men met each day, developing strangely touching relationships. It all becomes even darker when Rokeach begins experimenting with them individually, subjecting their beliefs to a volley of attacks. It’s a psychological case study, but it reads with the richness of a novel, digging into the dark recesses of this existence and what we do to get along in it.
Jean Strouse: Alice James: A Biography (original review February 24, 2012) – This biography of Alice James, ill-fated and sickly sister of Henry and William, surprised me with its insightful exploration of a brilliant woman held back by her family and times. I knew next to nothing about her, despite all of the intrigue I’ve felt toward her famous brothers. What I found was a woman who was probably their equal, if only she weren’t held back by her times and by her sickness. Or was her sickness her strongest response to the times? Strouse’s account may be the best biography I’ve ever read, having as it does a very Jamesian feel.
Nescio: Amsterdam Stories (original review March 23, 2012) – This is one of the greatest publications of the year, for my money. Nescio is a legendary Dutch master whose work had not been available in English before. Which is astonishing, really, because all of his work fits in this slender volume of just over 150 pages. In this short space, Nescio puts up a valiant fight against the passage of time, which there’s too little of to begin with. He focuses on that strange, brief period of transition to adulthood, when one has vague dreams for the future and a sudden realization that it will all end soon. Responsibilities, work and family, will make the time pass that much quicker. This is fascinating when looked at in connection with Nescio’s own life as a man who wanted to write but had a large family and a demanding job.
Eric Chevillard: Demolishing Nisard (original review April 13, 2012) – I think this is the funniest book on this list, though by the title and the cover you’d be forgiven for thinking it was some lofty post-modern bit of theory. Okay, and by the subject too: Nisard is a real French literary critic who lived in the 19th century. According to this sarcastic narrator who has allowed himself to become infuriated and obsessed with this nearly forgotten (and best-forgotten) bore, Nisard is basically responsible for every little pain in the neck: “In a Tuesday, August 3 interview on RTL Radio, Désiré Nisard reaffirmed his position that France’s minimum wage is overly generous.” Nisard is the disenchnater, but this book is the opposite.
Victor Serge: Memoirs of a Revolutionary (original review May 3, 2012) — When I received this book in the mail I didn’t even know if I’d be able to finish it, let alone like it. It’s fairly large and came at a time when I was extra busy at work. I decided to give it a shot, though, one night before I went to sleep. I was completely pulled in by the prose, the narrative, and the attempt to come to grips with an ugly time in our world’s history, and suddenly I found the time to read it all. It’s a fascinating political memoir that takes into account one’s changing (or, at least, complicating) perspectives over decades of loss. There are multiple struggles here, not the least of which are the struggle to change society and the struggle to comprehend the ugliness even our most noble thoughts can conjure.
Stefan Zweig: Confusion (original review May 24, 2012) — It was wonderful to return to Stefan Zweig, whom I hadn’t read since I began this blog in 2008. This novella showcases his reflective yet frenetic style as it tells the story of a young man, almost lost to schooling, who becomes enchanted by literature when he hears a lecture from an elderly professor. His passion for learning becomes insatiable as he neglects the physical for the life of the mind. But one cannot neglect the physical forever, and the subject of Confusion is as much about physical passion as it is about intellectual passion. To be honest, it’s not the best book on this list, but I can’t help but look back on it with fondness and recommend picking up anything you find by Zweig.
Robert Walser: The Walk (orginal review June 10, 2012) – I read two books by Walser this year, and each deserve to be on this list. However, I opted to focus on The Walk rather than Berlin Stories, mostly because The Walk perfectly shows Walser’s “exuberance as performance” (tip o’ the hat to Pykk), a performance meant to cover up something darker. The narrator is a writer who agonizes over his work through the night hours, finally fleeing for his walk when morning breaks. He manages to evade (at least, on the outside) his sadness for pages and pages of comic encounters, but shadows begin to fall over the land.
Richard Beard: Lazarus Is Dead (original review October 3, 2012) — Another surprising book, Lazarus Is Dead is an unclassifiable work on the life, death, and second life of Lazarus of Nazareth (as he’s presented to us here). Once Jesus’ best friend, Lazarus has parted ways and is comfortably living close to Jerusalem. To his dismay, his old friend begins performing miracles and with each one Lazarus’ health declines noticeably. He realizes, angry, that he has a role to play in Jesus’ ministry. But what? And, more importantly, why? Part biography, part scriptural analysis, funny and serious, this novel questions authority in all of its forms.
Gonçalo M. Tavares: The Neighborhood (original review November 8, 2012) – This book is a compilation of Tavares’ ongoing “Mister” series (though there will be Miss). A fictional neighborhood counts among its residents some men who bear a striking resemblance to our perceptions, made by the life they lead or the lives they created, of some famous writers: Paul Valéry, Italo Calvino, Robert Juarroz, Henri Michaux, Karl Krauss, and Robert Walser. Delightful and, if you look, dark, these pieces introduced me to Tavares, and I’m hopeful more of his books will be on this list next year. Incidentally, if you read nothing else in this book, read “Mister Walser.”
Alice Munro: Dear Life (original review November 13, 2012) — I actually haven’t finished reviewing this short story collection yet (I’m doing it story by story and have four more to go), but I knew before it was published that it would be on this list. These stories have been dripping out over the past few years, and this collection brings them together as a striking finale — at least, that’s what she calls the last four, more-or-less autobiographical pieces here. I hope she’s still writing, but if Dear Life is the last collection we get from her, she goes out on a high note. Might I particularly recommend “Amundsen,” “Gravel,” and “Corrie”?
Wieslaw Mysliwski: Stone Upon Stone (original review December 14, 2012) – As I said in my review, I read this book much earlier in the year and just couldn’t post this list without reviewing it and including it. So I revisited Stone Upon Stone, a long book that actually moves very fast, found it as wondrous as I did back in March, and proclaimed it my favorite book of the year. It’s a magnificent, intimate look at a Polish farmer’s life from the 1920s to the 1960s. I love all of the books on this list, but if you’re looking for just one, here it is.