1) Don Quixote– Miguel Cervantes
When: July-August, while volunteer farming in southeast Spain (coincidence??)
What: An old man convinces himself that he’s a knight and hires a shorter man to be his squire as they set out through Spain for quests and get into all kinds of muddles.
Review: What affected me the most about this staggering work was just how unique Cervantes’s objectives for the novel were. It seemed that to him, being a mirror-to-reality or allegory-for-morality was just too shallow for the human condition. Instead Cervantes chose the much more realistic direction of what Milan Kundera posed as ‘to comprehend the world as a question’. And this questioning didn’t really seem to reach a similar level until the postmodernists really tried tearing up the tradition. The humour is never simple, even when it’s incredibly crude (cue Sancho and Quixote vomiting on each other). For example at the very start of the novel, Quixote tries the strength of his cardboard helmet with a sword and breaks it immediately. He constructs another helmet but ‘sees no need to try it again’. In these few words we can already see the multiple layers to Quixote’s delusion- that deep down, almost subconsciously, he knows that the helmet will break, but still convinces himself that it is sturdy enough in order to maintain his composure. Just the sheer genius in such a snippet is baffling and it continues so for almost 900 pages.
2) Disgrace- JM Coetzee
When: Early winter, part of university course.
What: Ageing Professor David Laurie has dubiously consensual sex with a student at a university in post-apartheid South Africa and is forced to retire and move in with his daughter who has very dubiously consensual sex with several local men. David is confused and nothing much gets resolved.
Review: Such harsh minimalism can never really be appreciated until you see it attempted in film, where there’s a whole scene of perhaps four lines by the end of which John Malkovich shouts ‘You’ve said enough!’ and sounds entirely absurd. I’ve got a feeling this will also be the reason why the Cormac Mccarthy penned film The Counselor has not done too well. Disgrace brings unforgiving up to a new level, and in the same way as Cervantes shows a more real but much less satisfying resolution. It shows that life even when the examples and parallels are so clear, is never easily resolved.
3) Under Western Eyes– Joseph Conrad
When: Holiday in Italy, early July
What: In late-czarist Russia, a weedy university student Razumov is forced to hide a fellow student and recent political-assassin Haldin. Panic-stricken Razumov reports him to the establishment and then flees to Geneva. He flees to Geneva and acts as Haldin’s bereaving friend to Haldin’s family and fellow revolutionaries
Review: Joseph Conrad is one of my favourite novelists of all time, and Under Western Eyes was his last major novel that I hadn’t read. And because it didn’t seem to be rated in the same esteem as Conrad’s other more famous works such as Nostromo and The Secret Agent, I’d assumed the quality would not be the same. I was fortunately mistaken. This is one of the most gripping accounts of paranoia since Crime and Punishment. Razumov’s decline into a stuttering, callous, but also pitiful wreck is disturbing- as is what eventually happens to him. Likewise it is one of the most scathing satires of the revolutionary posers that Conrad had encountered. But the novelist’s greatest move was, like in Heart of Darkness, employing an external narrator (in the form of an old languages teacher) to witness the store. And you might miss it, but his suppressed love for his student Natalia Haldin is almost unbearable.
4) Gravity’s Rainbow– Thomas Pynchon
When: October to December in transition to moving to London and starting work (probably worst time to start such a goliath of a novel)
What: Good question. Very basic outline is that during and just after WW2 a myriad of characters are connected in a quest to find a mysterious version of the German V2 rocket.
Review: I approached this book in marathon-mode: knowing that I’d often hate reading it, but get really satisfied when I’ve finished and can appreciate the work from a distance without having to sweat for it. I almost gave up 200 pages in when the chaotic mist showed no sign of clearing. This was extra hard after seeing it seemed to neither have the engaging fluidity of Infinite Jest nor the literary playfulness of Ulysses, and was nowhere as near as easy as his earlier work The Crying of Lot 49. Of course it did have these first two aspects, it just did not scream out to me as with the others. Instead I developed a strange numbness to reading the novel, which I don’t think I’ve really felt before, where you are no longer surprised at anything thrown at you- you just want to hold on to the tailfin of Pynchon’s rocketing narrative- appreciating the brief respite of clarity and anecdotes (The infinite and socialist Byron the bulb is excellent)- before you get blasted somewhere else across the wastes of post-war Europe. Trust me it’s worth holding on.
5) Life Studies– Robert Lowell
When: Start of the year for course.
What: One of the cornerstones of confessional poetry, Lowell delves into his family’s history and into his own personal troubles with mental health and imprisonment.
Review: This is the first poetry collection that I’ve appreciated as a whole, normally I’d just skim through those in the selected collection, which really does dissolve any of the original collections shape and direction. And it was with Life Studies that I really felt what I had been missing. It starts with the rolling dreaminess of ‘Beyond the Alps’, then flows into the cold prosaic analysis of his childhood in ’91 Revere Street’ and through some of Lowell’s greatest works ‘Sailing Home from Rapallo’ and ‘Memories of West Street and Lepke’ until the bone-chilling line ‘my mind’s not right’ of the closer ‘Skunk Hour’. The chiaroscuro of cold and warmth throughout the collection gives the full silhouette of a poet: it shows Lowell a man who is fully and entirely footed in this world, but also seems to somehow be missing.