1. Augustus (1972, John Williams): 12/23/18-4/21/19 (on-off)
In a certain sense I don’t know if I’m entirely fit to form any coherent thoughts on this monumental work, considering my prolonged and very scattered engagement with it. But it seems fitting, in a certain way: it is a book of transience, looking backwards at memories only mostly remembered, even as those who bear witness to history pass before their time. The years pass, only highlighted truly by the denotations in the headings, and the voices thin one by one until the subject himself speaks, and his own voice is as distinguished yet as fundamentally poetic as the rest. A fitting final work, then, encompassing a life and a nation with unimaginable grace.
2. The Savage Detectives (1998, Roberto Bolaño): 4/22/19-6/23/19
It’s an understatement to say that this permeated and swirled around in my consciousness for the two months I read it, and probably will for a good long while after. Finishing it at around the same time as my experience with La Flor, a work of comparable scope and artistic lineage, if not ultimate intention, does certainly color it, but in many ways this colossal work seems even more mysterious than when I first started it. The structure certainly points to a fundamental aimlessness, when a person becomes further unmoored from an already rootless existence, as the regimented structure of the days disappear and a testimony can be split into many parts and take place over the course of a single night or decades. In a sense, this almost combines the intentions of the previous two books I’ve read (Invisible Cities and Augustus) and transforms them, anchoring itself in a time, space, and movement simultaneously real and imaginary. But the anxieties, the raucousness, the desperation are all too real; what truly punctures is not just the two (or three) lost souls at its center, but the fates of so many characters that feel just as key as the rest. Whether ending up dead or cocooned within a life far less radical (for good or ill), no one can escape the progression of time, the march of the decades. When your goal is unexpectedly fulfilled with little fanfare, where can you go, what can you do?
3. Three to Kill (1976, Jean-Patrick Manchette): 6/23/19-6/24/19
Didn’t necessarily expect the political edge to this, which becomes an inflection through the course of the narrative but rears its head at unexpected moments, but it pairs perfectly with the ruthless cool of this, the loving detail given to the process by which men engage in vicious exchanges. Like many of the great artists, and like his central character, Manchette’s facility with time is extremely adaptable, and his chapter structure bears this out: the longest chapters both feature spans of long months and the course of a night, and sometimes they last less than two pages, all the better to convey the clipped yet melodic nature of his prose. Calling this bloodless wouldn’t be correct, but a steeliness emanates off of every sentence, a total confidence that thrills.
4. Transit (1944, Anna Seghers): 6/25/19-8/8/19
Can’t help but ultimately compare this to Christian Petzold’s masterful film, which pares down and refines the surprising multitude of elements to this sobering and deeply involved book. Its greatness is of a sort very different (and not quite as appealing) from the film, delving deep into its nameless protagonist’s mindset, which veers from callous to obsessed in a manner that ultimately feels consistent and deeply revealing of the very whims that govern the murmuring masses whose fates are decided by scraps of paper. The emotions may be somewhat more tricky to get into, particularly in terms of the circling nature of this book, with Seghers seeming as interested in the disparate side characters as in her central dynamics, but as little moments emerge, as more and more is spoken and unspoken, something of no small power does ultimately emerge.
5. Cathedral (1983, Raymond Carver): 8/9/19-8/17/19
Can’t speak to how this compares to the average short story collection, but there’s such an immense unity to these, each existing in their own orbit but sharing a careful and rigorous attention to suburban anxieties. Without sacrificing the overall air of memory and recollection, Carver’s mode always shifts, especially in when he chooses when to narrate from his main character’s point of view or not; “A Small, Good Thing” is the natural pinnacle and centerpiece of this, fluidly shifting between husband and wife before reorienting suddenly in the last few pages. And of course, the title story is a perfect capper, an immense tribute to art and empathy as prickly and complex as it is moving.