Reading 2014

Being a collection of disordered thoughts on new writing from the last year or so.


There were lots of books about books. I enjoyed Rebecca Mead‘s My Life in Middlemarch (Crown Publishing, 2014) and Joanna Rakoff‘s My Salinger Year (Knopf, 2014), which both fused literary criticism and autobiography into what Joyce Carol Oates called, reviewing Mead, “bibliomemoirs.” “The book was reading me, as I was reading it,” wrote Mead of Middlemarch, locating George Eliot’s greatness in her broad imaginative sympathies. Mead’s is a lovely book, mixing biographical detail about Eliot with an introspective analysis of how her work might be read and re-read on the journey through life (review here). Rakoff’s book, meanwhile, is more straightforwardly autobiographical, recounting the author’s first job in publishing, in which she became a sort of gatekeeper for J.D. Salinger. Until then, she’d not read him (“I was not interested in hyper-articulate seven-year-olds who quoted from the Bhagavad Gita”); but before long, she’s hooked.

After a century of literary modernism, its central characters continue to haunt the pages of new work. Kevin Jackson‘s Constellation of Genius: 1922 – Modernism Year One (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2013) is novelly conceived, taking 1922 day by day, dropping in and out of the lives of Joyce, Proust, Picasso, Stravinsky, and many other towering figures of the age. Worth it for the detail alone, including the rumoured conversation between Proust and Joyce on their only interpersonal encounter (“I have never read your works, Mr Joyce”). Nine more things you might learn from Jackson here. Shortly after came Kevin Birmingham with The Most Dangerous Book: The Battle for James Joyce’s Ulysses (The Penguin Press, 2014). In this fascinating book, Birmingham makes a highly convincing case for placing Ulysses at the center of the story of the troubled relationship between art and the law. He also tells a cracking story, weaving anarchists, tortured geniuses, and the international vice squad into the tale of one man and his masterpiece.

Feminism seemed to be in the process of reinscription in 2014. In September Emma Watson spoke eloquently at the United Nations about gender equality and the need to reclaim the very word “feminism” from those who associate it with misandry. Laura Bates collected her thoughts and conclusions from two years of the Everyday Sexism Project in a startling first book. Caitlin Moran published How To Build A Girl (Harper, 2014), a sort of fictional companion piece to her earlier How To Be A Woman (Harper Perennial, 2012), and continued to rule the Twittersphere. Beyoncé got in on the action at the VMAs, beaming the word FEMINIST across America in six-foot-tall capitals. Diane Keaton published the second volume of her memoirs, a touching and witty exploration of beauty and motherhood called Let’s Just Say It Wasn’t Pretty (Random House, 2014). And I particularly enjoyed Roxane Gay‘s energizing Bad Feminist (Harper Perennial, 2014), which made me laugh out loud walking down the street (review).


Suffering from chronic fear-of-missing-out, I finally dived headlong into Karl Ove Knausgaard‘s six-volume My Struggle (Farrar, Straus and Giroux; Book 1, 2012; Book 2, 2013; Book 3, 2014), which may or may not accurately be called a publishing phenomenon (cf. Tim Parks in the New York Review of Books). People are describing it as Proustian but really I think a whole new adjective is called for. I was reading Book 1 around the time Boyhood came out at the cinema, and started making idle notes in relation to both about “the transcendence of the banal.” Knausgaard in print and Richard Linklater on film have succeeded in transmuting the inconsequential into something meaningful, even profound. The shambling arc of Boyhood was given special resonance by the astounding formal experiment at the film’s heart: its having been filmed with the same cast over the course of twelve years. Linklater’s film also shared with Knausgaard’s writing a piercing clarity on the subject of what used to be called “the crisis of masculinity.” Meanwhile, the confessional Karl Ove (or “Karl Ove”?) is surely set to become one of the great characters in world literature. His musings — petty, grand, philosophical, banal, cruel, loving — are the extraordinary propulsive force in his meandering, almost entirely uneventful epic. Like Zadie Smith, I need the next volume “like crack.”

A solid showing from fiction elsewhere in 2014 too. There Must Be Some Mistake by Frederick Barthelme (Little, Brown, 2014) was funny and fun and wise and postmodern-without-the-agenda and timely and all that jazz. Wallace Webster’s very much a hero for now, an ambitionless retiree watching box sets of Scandinavian crime dramas and casually pursuing romance. In the background are a series of suspicious deaths and weird happenings in the condoparadise of Forgetful Bay, TX, where he lives. Hugely enjoyable. Joshua Ferris‘s third novel, To Rise Again At A Decent Hour (Little, Brown, 2014), which became one of the first American books nominated for the Man Booker Prize, was very entertaining too. A sharp take on the challenges of spirituality in the digital age, it’s also the comic tale of a dentist caught up in a pseudo-religious conspiracy (review). Back in May, the House of SpeakEasy welcomed David Gilbert to the City Winery stage, and his novel & Sons (Random House, 2013), which explores the life and death of a reclusive literary novelist, was also a highlight (review).

It was an excellent year for general nonfiction. In April, our executive director, Amanda Vaill, published Hotel Florida: Truth, Love, and Death in the Spanish Civil War (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014). A superb, wide-ranging history of the conflict focusing on key figures including the photographer Robert Capa and Ernest Hemingway, it was later listed as one of the New York Times‘ notable books of 2014 (review). The House of SpeakEasy also hosted Simon Winchester, whose rhapsodic The Men Who United the States (Harper, 2013) was hugely pleasurable (review), and Tom Reiss, who won the Pulitzer for his excellent biographical study of Alexandre Dumas’ soldier father and “the real Count of Monte Cristo” in The Black Count (Crown, 2012) (review). Perhaps my favorite book of the year, though, was Philip Hoare‘s follow-up to The Whale, The Sea Inside (Melville House, 2014), a strange and intense work of natural history, philosophy, biography and literary criticism. His style recalls influences as disparate as Iris Murdoch, J.G. Ballard and even Melville himself; his self-effacing romance with the ocean is gripping (review).

As for the award for best nonfiction that wasn’t actually a book? OK, yes, the Serial podcast was pretty great. I’m in the minority that finds Sarah Koenig‘s smart-casual style somewhat affected, a little disingenuous, and at times plain irritating. But advertently or not, Serial has helped to focus any number of questions and issues currently buzzing round the US legal system and the entertainment-industrial complex. What is the nature of reasonable doubt? How do race and the law interact in today’s society? Is it OK to replay personal tragedy as mass entertainment? The podcast has finished but the debate continues, with the recent publication of interviews with Jay Wilds, the key witness for the prosecution of Adnan Syed in the murder of Hae Min Lee, on The Intercept. Roll on, Season 2…

Keep following us on Twitter and Facebook as we inaugurate another Seriously Entertaining year on January 28 at City Winery with our gala show!

Middlemarch Revisited: Rebecca Mead on the Life of a Classic

It’s funny that Middlemarch, a place name that could scarcely sound more English, should be without lexical precedent in the maps of its homeland. As Rebecca Mead informs us in her lovely book My Life in Middlemarch (Crown Publishing, 2014), there aren’t any other towns in England suffixed “-march.” Yet its cadence is perfect (particularly to Midlands ears like my own). “It implies that the book,” says Mead, “with its subtitle, ‘A Study of Provincial Life,’ will be concerned with that which is absolutely pedestrian and ordinary. Provincialism — geographical, emotional — will be at its heart.”

What’s not pedestrian is Mead’s rather wonderful book on the subject. Mixing biography and autobiography, literary criticism and social history, she arrives at something that, in the end, approaches the profundity of Middlemarch‘s own famous final lines. At the heart of Mead’s Life is a notion of existence, at its best, as an ever-enlarging sphere of sympathy. Prized above all is the capacity, acquired through time and imagination, to appreciate that while “we each have our own center of gravity,” yet “others weigh the world differently than we do […] The necessity of growing out of such self-centeredness is the theme of Middlemarch.”

Often, as she retraces Eliot’s steps through life, Mead finds herself gazing through the windows of houses her author-hero lived or stayed in some century and a half earlier. The recurrence of this image is telling. Windows, in Middlemarch as in life, can occasion a reflective mood: on the largeness of the world outside; on the different and separate joys and troubles of those one can see from them. This humbling experience can isolate but also serves as a reminder of the extraordinary variety of life, perhaps even the glory that lies therein.

Haha! but there is, of course, an obverse, a kind of judgmental voyeurism enabled by distance:

The censorious glimpse from behind the net curtain is a peculiarly English phenomenon, and I derive delicious pleasure from the two Georges’ carelessness about the judgment delivered by smaller minds and smaller hearts than their own.

The two Georges are Eliot, née Mary Ann Evans, and George Henry Lewes, the man with whom she shared, unmarried, more than two decades of her life. This most unVictorian arrangement, much frowned upon by Eliot’s own family (and “society” at large), was nonetheless intensely happy — and fantastically fertile, creatively. Indeed, all of Eliot’s fiction, from Scenes of Clerical Life to Daniel Deronda, was written during their relationship. Through their partnership, she acquired an unanticipated three sons, and though she never had children of her own it seems clear that her experience of a kind of motherhood helped enlarge her own sympathies. She is, as Mead suggests, “a one-woman refutation of the canard that only writers who are parents can write well about parenthood.”

Lewes was not her first love. But the philosopher Herbert Spencer, whom she met when she moved to London, did not reciprocate her affections. As readers, was this to our ultimate benefit?

He was part of her education, as Dorothea [Brooke, in Middlemarch] was part of Lydgate’s education [their romance, too, goes nowhere], and as all our loves, realized or otherwise — all our alternative plots — go to make us who we are, and become part of what we make.

“All our alternative plots” is a marvelous turn of phrase, containing in it all that is unbearable yet liberating about the lightness of being. The delicate misunderstandings between Dorothea and Will Ladislaw, which keep them apart for so many hundreds of pages, are, after all, predicated on their perception of alternative plots. When they are united at last, all haze dispersed, their love is more powerful than it could otherwise have been. A will — Dorothea’s late first husband’s — previously an impediment to their union, is punningly trumped by a capital-letter Will, in a subversive repudiation of the inheritance trope central to so many Victorian novels. Although Dorothea’s second marriage doesn’t escape opprobrium (as Eliot’s first, after the death of Lewes, to a man twenty years her junior, would not), it is not the censure of Middlemarch‘s ideal reader.

Mead’s take on Eliot’s unconventional life suggests how it affected her moral philosophy. “Middlemarch is not just concerned with the social consequences of geographical provincialism,” she writes. “It is also concerned with the emotional repercussions of a kind of immature provincialism of the soul — a small-minded, self-centered perspective that resists the implications of a larger view.” This larger view was all Eliot asked for. Writing to a friend following her late wedding to John Walter Cross, she implored: “I can only ask you and your husband to imagine and interpret according to your deep experience and loving kindness.” In Middlemarch, marital incompatibility is not just one person being misunderstood by another but, as Mead writes, “two people failing each other in their powers of comprehension.” The largeness of heart and mind — the absolute comprehension of each of the other — that she perceives in the long, ecstatic union of Eliot and Lewes was quite possibly the source of the enormous sympathetic capacities that produced Eliot’s greatest work.

Aside from its perspicacious analysis of the interpenetrations of Eliot’s life and work, the principal pleasure of My Life in Middlemarch is in Mead’s deeply personal account of the novel’s effect on her own life.

This book, which had been published serially in eight volumes almost a hundred years before I was born, wasn’t distant or dusty, but arresting in the acuteness of its psychological penetration and the snap of its sentences. Through it, George Eliot spoke with an authority and a generosity that was wise and essential and profound. I couldn’t believe how good it was.

If you’ve not read Middlemarch yourself, you will likely experience a similar feeling. I remember doggedly arguing with a supervisor at university that Great Expectations had the edge as the greatest Victorian novel. The grotesquerie of its tragedy, the broadness of its comedy, and Dickens’s extraordinary gift as a storyteller made of me a passionate advocate. Yet it’s Middlemarch that’s stayed with me. Today it is the “great classic” I most commonly recommend. Why? Like Mead, “The book was reading me, as I was reading it.” Just as My Life in Middlemarch is a sort of authorial term card for Mead — how she reads the book now — so every reader will discover new shapes and details with each new encounter. How? Because Eliot was successful in her chief project:

The only effect I ardently long to produce by my writings, is that those who read them be better able to imagine and to feel the pains and the joys of those who differ from themselves in everything but the broad fact of being struggling erring human creatures.

Great art, as is found in Middlemarch, allows us to understand each other’s “struggling erring” natures with not judgment but love. Read it now; read it again; march on.

Here’s Rebecca Mead talking about the origins of her book back in 2011:

You can follow Rebecca Mead on Twitter and buy a copy of My Life in Middlemarch from McNally Jackson.