My Year in Nonfiction 2018 | Essay collections & Memoirs

Hi, folks,

Continuing with the discussion started a couple of posts back, about nonfiction trends in my reading this year,  I’ve also noticed that I read a good amount of essay collections/ memoirs:

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The Quarry: Essays, by Susan Howe (2015)

This is a collection of essays organized in reverse-chronological order, from 2015 to 1974, offering a retrospective of Howe’s writing. The ten essays published here read like an exercise in deconstructing form: in a blend of literary criticism, cultural history, poetry, and personal memoir, Howe muses on art, philosophy and human nature, drawing from a variety of authors, intellectuals, and artists – such as Wallace Stevens, Baruch Spinoza, Charles Sanders Peirce, Nicolas Poussin, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Charles Olson, Felix Frankfurter, and others.

The opening essay, “Vagrancy in the Park”, draws from the first lines of Wallace Stevens’ “Vacancy in the Park”, to wander through his work, letters, and life; then, it leaps to Spinoza and Howe’s own life, so as to build a larger frame for her ruminations on reality: “Secret perceptions in readers draw near to the secret perceptions in authors.”

In “Where Should the Commander Be?”, Howe explores Charles Olson’s use of the page and of blank space, as well as the similarities between a more visual use of language (“This feeling for seeing in a poem, is Olson’s innovation”) and the process of film montage (“montage is conflict”). Words are shapes and sounds – or, more precisely, spaces and sounds becoming meaning.

Closely related with the topic of montage and passage of time in poetry is her examination of the work of the French documentary filmmaker Chris Marker, in the essay “Sorting Facts; Or, Nineteen Ways of Looking at Marker.” Here, I was reminded of Marília Garcia’s um teste de resistores (2014), which also draws from Marker, and tries to translate into poetry the discussion over montage, cutting and repetition. Howe begins with the French filmmaker, in order to use the essay as an elegiac documentary of the life and work of her deceased husband, the sculptor David von Schlegell: “Sorting word-facts I only know an apparition. Scribble grammar has no neighbour. In the name of reason, I need to record something because I am a survivor in this ocean. That’s why I agreed to meddle in a foreign discipline.” Much like Marker, she uses montage – cutting and repetition – to assemble fragments of personal narrative, research and images, held together by her very act of sorting them with a purpose in mind.

Elegy is the subject of another essay, “The Disappearance Approach”, which centres on Howe’s second husband, the philosopher Peter Hare, who died in 2008. Here, she also uses a wide range of fragments, so as to make sense of grief and shed light over her loss. Drawing from W. H. Auden, Ovid, William Gass, Yeats, Hölderlin, and Milton, Howe, using poetry “as proof against our fear of emptiness”, weaves a delicate web of words around the absence brought about by death.

Howe frequently sacrifices clarity of meaning in order to achieve some aesthetic effect, and the book reads very much like a strange blend between Sebald’s Rings of Saturn and Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts.  However, as much as her essays are cerebral and arid, they are also deeply poetic – in the midst of many scattered pieces of encyclopaedic knowledge, we have lines like these: “Sound is sight sung inwardly”; “Once you admit that time past is actually infinite, being a child gradually fades out”; “What if our interior innermost mortal happiness is all we see without ever being able to show?”; “A film you love when you are young is never what you know you saw”; “Something at the margin between thought and sound is somewhere else”; “Historical imagination gathers in the missing”; “The message arrives as a departure”.

In the essay “Arisbe”, on the philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce, Howe mentions his neologism “Synechism” – a ‘tendency of the mind to regard everything as continuous’. I think “Synechism” is also a good term to describe Howe’s method and writing style in the essays collected in this book: through her associative mode of thinking, she begins with a random topic, then leaps to a line in a poem or a sentence in a letter, going on with its meaning or its sound until the next point of reference – as if she were excavating through multiple layers of meaning, and building her argument through an accumulation of fragments. “I get these obsessions, and follow trails that often end up being squirrel paths.”

Howe’s essays read like they were trespassing into a different form and imploding from the inside. Somewhere between poetic documentaries, artistic collages, essayistic poems, or idiosyncratic scholarship, they combine reality and imagination, fact and fiction, rigor and rapture – running “across the moving surface of time”; looking for “all that is in the other stream of consciousness”; and, finally, lifting, “from the dark side of history, voices that are anonymous, slighted—inarticulate.” Howe’s essays are a product of her fierce quarrying – her cutting and digging through layers of history and meaning, as if through a large mass of rocks; and they are also a daring leap of faith directly into the quarry.

About the book

  • New Directions , 2015, 224 p. Goodreads
  • My rating: 4 stars

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Feel Free: Essays, By Zadie Smith (2018)

The book is a collection of essays, reviews, and cultural pieces, written during the Obama administration, ranging over subjects such as the depiction of corpses in Renaissance paintings; Joni Mitchell’s songs; climate change; Facebook (“the Internet tamed to fit the suburban fantasies of a suburban soul”); J.G. Ballard; Jay-Z; Brexit; cultural appropriation; Smith’s upbringing; Justin Bieber (as seen through the philosophy of Martin Buber), among other topics.

One of my favourite pieces in this collection, “The I Who Is Not Me”, explores the role of the autobiographical in fiction and the question of voice (which also reminded me of a recent piece by Nicole Krauss on the female voice and the struggle for authority in writing). Smith writes about her reluctance to use the first-person in her novels, which she viewed as an indulgence, a narcissistic weakness – a taboo she only overcame in her most recent novel, Swing Time (2017). “What a freedom I felt,” writes Smith, “constructing this entirely false autobiography which still, at every turn, sounded real, because I had allowed myself to write ‘I’ and in this way falsely insist on its truth.”

She goes on to acknowledge the gift of freedom she received from writers such as Philip Roth and Hanif Kureishi, who took this freedom for themselves, breaking with what was expected of them: “All the great energy of ‘Buddha’ comes from watching the liberty of creative freedom being taken, over and over again — as if it were a right.” Once again, echoing Krauss, Smith  argues that, by creating a first-person narrator – an “I-who-is-not-me” -, she has the opportunity to experience another self, and to play in this grey zone between the “I-who-I-am” and the “I-whom-I-presume-is-you”. For Smith, literature takes place in this space of tension and reconciliation between these many I’s – the space where both author and reader receive the gift of freedom that is to take a distance from themselves, and to leap towards one another. Literature “is precisely the ambivalent space in which impossible identities are made possible, both for authors and their characters.”

I also enjoyed Smith’s review on Thomas Bernhard’s “My Prizes”, and her piece about Geoff Dyer: “The act of critical appreciation is, for Dyer, very close to longing.” Her essay on Joni Mitchell, “Some Notes on Attunement”, is another of my favourite pieces in this collection: an account of her changing perception of Mitchell’s songs, touching on Kierkegaard and Wordsworth along the way.

The writing style is casual, intimate, at times nostalgic; more often than not, it is self-effacing – and, on the worst cases it borders on false modesty. What stands out, however, is her joy at writing about the things she loves: she almost makes us feel that same joy, that insight, that illumination.

As the title suggests, this book can be read as an exploration of this gift of freedom Smith received and is intent on passing on to us: freedom of thought; freedom from convention; freedom to care about art even if it is not expressly political, and freedom to reimagine politics; freedom not to take ourselves too seriously, or as natural, unquestionable, wholly knowable and known entities; the freedom to leap into another life; the freedom of interpreting, making, contemplating art; and the freewheeling nature of essay writing itself. As Smith writes: “You can’t fight for a freedom you’ve forgotten how to identify.”

About the book

  • Penguin Press, 2018, 448 p. Goodreads
  • My rating: 4 stars

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Autumn, by  Karl Ove Knausgård, tr. in Ingvild Burkey (2017. Original: Om høsten, 2015)

Autumn, tr. in Ingvild Burkey (2017. Original: Om høsten, 2015), is the first volume in Knausgård’s quartet of books based around the seasons. Differently from the instalments in Ali Smith’s Seasonal series, this book is a collection of random observations about small things – rubber boots, vomit, chewing gum, plastic bags, apples, flies, buttons – and some big topics – loneliness, van Gogh, silence, forgiveness, the passage of time, Flaubert, war, shame, pain.

Addressed to his – then – unborn fourth child, the book comprises three letters to her and sixty short essays, intended not only to introduce her to the world, but to force the author himself to see things anew: “only by doing so will I myself be able to glimpse it”. To find beauty in unexpected places, to be mindful, and to appreciate ordinary things – how more commonplace can this get? And yet, this is precisely what Knausgård is aiming at here. He is looking for re-enchantment; he is trying to see the world afresh. If he really achieves this in the book, it is questionable.

In every essay, he holds on to a fixed pattern: beginning with a banal description, he then moves to free-associative observations, only to end with a generalizing assertion he seems to find resonant. Neither the format he chooses nor the conclusions he arrives at are particularly unexpected or fresh. He seems to be straining for effect, tryng too hard to impress – more often than not, though, his writing is too sentimental, bordering on pontification, cliché, and triviality.

One cannot help but feel some second-hand embarrassment in reading his commonplace statements (artists “rebel against conformity”); his hasty generalizations (Nothing can live in airtight space, therefore nothing can die in it either”); and worn-out similes (“white as snow”). He seems to be simply making an unedited account of the first thing that comes into his head every day. His forays into the unknowable, however, more often than not, read like some angsty teenager’s textbook marginalia.

Few of the essays break this pattern: my favourite, “Loneliness”, brilliantly explores Knausgård’s perception of his father’s isolation. Here and there, in the book, we find observations that provide some real insight – for instance: “Nearly all my dreams are set in landscapes I moved away from long ago, as if I had left something behind there that was never concluded” – but those moments are rare.

About the book

  • Penguin Press, 2017, tr. in Ingvild Burkey, 224 p. Goodreads
  • Original title: Om høsten
  • First published in 2015
  • My rating: 2 stars

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Winter, by karl ove Knausgård, tr. Ingvild Burkey (2018. Original: Om vinteren, 2015)

The second volume in Knausgård’s seasonal quartet of books, Winter, tr. Ingvild Burkey (2018. Original: Om vinteren, 2015), follows the same pattern set in the previous volume: description, generalization, free-associations, leading to a final conclusion that, more often than not, comprises no unfamiliar or fresh way to look at the topic at hand – be it the format of the nose, the concept of coins, a chair, pipes, stuffed animals, Dante, sexual desire, or death.

The writing is repetitive, predictable, overtly sentimental, and dull, bordering on cliché: he keeps revolving the idea that the season of Winter is about death, and “death and nothingness await us“, the “nothing that is not there and the nothing that is“. Like in the previous volume, there is no lack of opportunities for us to feel second-hand embarrassment at the author’s wonder at what might be better defined as high school Physics, or his (mostly failed) attempts at composing aphorisms: “the Milky Way might be the comma in a sentence in a newspaper that hasn’t been picked up yet.”

Few passages really stand out: for instance, when he describes the fields in Winter, “covered by a thin layer of snow, with the brown soil showing through in places, as when a wound is visible through strips of gauze.” Or, in the final essay, “Windows”: “How ambivalent we are in relation to these categories of ‘inside’ and ‘outside’ becomes apparent if we consider the coffin, which by virtue of being our final dwelling, our last defence against the elements, our final ‘inside,’ in large measure denies our true nature, but not entirely: In that case, the coffin too would have windows.

Rather than offering a fresh perspective on the topics explored, or a perspective free from conventional judgements, the two first books in the seasonal quartet cling to conventionality at its worst: the beaten track of ideas and images about what might, more easily, move, impress, shock, or disgust the reader.

In fact, most of the essays here read like excerpts some wise editor may have chosen to leave out of the author’s “My Struggle”. In that series, like in his seasonal quartet, Knausgård seems to be trying to bridge the distance between him and the world, between his notions on reality and reality itself, in a personal struggle to fully inhabit his own life. Differently from his famous series, however, most of the essays here read like drafts, underdeveloped ideas, poorly researched and written in a hurry, by someone more interested in impressing the readers than in really conveying fresh insights.

About the book

  • Penguin Press, 2018, tr. Ingvild Burkey, 254 p. Goodreads
  • Original title: Om vinteren
  • First published in 2015
  • My rating: 2 stars

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First, We Make the Beast Beautiful, by Sarah Wilson (2018)

This book is a blend of research, memoir, self-analysis, and self-help around anxiety. The author explores her journey through depression, hypomania, bipolar disorder, bulimia, and Hashimoto’s disease – and claims that all of those were variations on the same problem: anxiety.

She goes on to offer advice on how to reduce anxiety: taking a long walk, trying a lifestyle free of clutter, meditating, and making one’s bed every morning, among other well-known practices. I was hoping the author would concentrate on the memoir aspect of the book, but she ends up sticking to the beaten formula of preaching a lifestyle that is unattainable for most people – and she supports her arguments with the help of a fair amount of celebrity name-dropping. If only we could cast out existential angst with a special diet and some exercise… Not only that, but the way the author handles research on the practices she advices is also problematic: she is very selective in the studies she refers to, looking solely for existing data that confirms her statements.

Furthermore, most of her advice is contradictory with the book’s own premise: that of embracing anxiety, instead of trying to overcome it. About the premise itself and the way it was handled, I found that the book ends up by romanticizing anxiety as a potential tool to creativity, which is questionable. Lost on the author are the meaning and ambiguity of the book’s title – borrowed from a quote of Kay Redfield Jamison’s memoir An Unquiet Mind (“The Chinese believe that before you can conquer a beast you first must make it beautiful. In some strange way, I have tried to do that with manic-depressive illness”), a book that handles the topic with much more nuance. Sadly, rather than engaging with anxiety in a new way, or presenting a rigorous research on the topic, Wilson’s book reads like a collection of poorly-edited blog posts.

About the book

  • Macmillan, 2018, 320 p. Goodreads
  • My rating: 1,5 stars

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I Am, I Am, I Am , by Maggie O’Farrell (2017)

This memoir comprises seventeen essays, organized in non-chronological order, that explore the author’s close encounters with death. Each chapter is named after the part of the body – neck, bloodstream, lungs, head, abdomen, and so on – which was, at that time, most in danger. You can read my full review here.

I remember that, as I swung back and forth, something shifted, or settled upon me, some extra depth of vision – a sudden recalibration or bifurcation of my perceptions took place. I could see myself both from above and from within. I had a sense of myself as miniscule, inconsequential, a tiny moving automaton in a wide scene, and at the same time I was acutely aware of myself as an organism, a human microcosm (…) I acquired a simultaneous sense of time as a vast continuum, and an awareness that my stretch in it would be short, insignificant. I knew in that moment, and perhaps for the first time, that I would one day die, that at some point there would be nothing left of me, my mittens, my breathing, my curls, my hat. I felt that conviction for the first time. My death felt like a person standing there next to me. ― Maggie O’Farrell, I Am, I Am, I Am: Seventeen Brushes with Death

About the book


That’s all for now, folks. Did you notice any trends in your nonfiction reading this year? Did you read any good essay collections or memoirs? Tell me about it.

Yours truly,

J.


Harold Harvey, ‘The New Book’, 1920

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3 Comments

  1. Wonderful write up. I also liked reading Feel Free this year, it had some truly stellar and thoughtful essays.
    Great to read your thoughts on First We Make the Beast Beautiful. I’m glad that I skipped that one reading your take, it doesn’t sound at all like what I was hoping to read, very disappointing, actually. Such a beautiful cover though!

    Like

    Reply

    1. Thank you, Rennie! I loved Feel Free; now, I want to read Zadie’s first essay collection 🙂 I was drawn to First We Make the Beast Beautiful for its title & cover, but, unfortunately, it wasn’t for me.

      Liked by 1 person

      Reply

      1. I was curious about her first essay collection after reading this one too! Will be looking forward to your review 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

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