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.
6. The Unknown Masterpiece (1831, Honoré de Balzac): 8/18/19-9/6/19
Though the title story is the greater of the two, the significant presence of “Gambara”, both physically (taking up two-thirds of the NYRB book) and aesthetically, certainly shouldn’t be discounted. The two are both concerned with the undoing or misapprehension of genius, and in a way act as foils for each other. Both share in common what appears to be Balzac’s penchant for long monologues, frequently filled with extensive technical discussions of art, and the actual narratives are relatively brief. However, “The Unknown Masterpiece” feels far more deliberately spare in a way that suits it: taking place over no more than three days (though perhaps separated by a longer span), only involving a few characters, and surrounding a single deliberately withheld artwork; furthermore, all of these characters are (as per the introduction) master painters in their own right at different stages in their careers, and thus share a certain commonality. On the other hand, “Gambara” is almost maximal in comparison; the cast of characters is only slightly larger, but the eponymous character is deliberately isolated, with Balzac frequently negotiating a strange balance in depicting him that never fully coheres, and the logorrheic stretches of musical discourse and description both act as a brilliant replication of time and an only partially successful substitute for the actual experience of listening. Both are perhaps overly invested in a sense of aesthetic purity, but in a way this is fitting; without it, the notion of mastery found and lost would be even harder to evoke.
7. The Mad and the Bad (1972, Jean-Patrick Manchette): 9/7/19-9/14/19
Moves incredibly easily from the carefully manicured and managed world of comfortable living — punctuated by Peter’s violent outburst — to stretches of ultraviolence. Like in Three to Kill, Manchette emphasizes the transformation of the main character into something close to a hardened killer, but it’s complicated here by her past in the asylum, which makes her a less easily readable character (largely) for the better. It seems only fitting that a department store and a labyrinth complete with a room for a giant form the spaces for the grand setpieces of this book: the specter of capitalism and greed looms over this, something which the ending note only throws into stark, gleefully cynical relief.
8. Notes on the Cinematograph (1975, Robert Bresson): 9/15/19
Though the specific qualities that make this such a staggering work are by no means absent from the realm of film writing or criticism, there’s something that feels firmly literary about Bresson’s extensive (yet slim) series of aphorisms. Like in his films, there exists a delicate balance between words, between phrases (and the ideas they suggest), between the arrangement of phrases that gives this its power, continually emphasizing his central filmmaking edicts while suggesting much more. Unnamed films, many composers and thinkers, and the occasional direct command tantalize and set the mind ablaze, all while the central integrity of the book remains steadfast. Amazing because of its stark brevity, not in spite of it.