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summer reading: k. thomas kahn

By K. Thomas Kahn, Contributing Editor

Still from Robert Bresson’s Four Nights of a Dreamer, 1971

This summer, I’ll be juggling several projects, so some of my lofty reading plans—like re-reading all of George Eliot’s work(!)—have been put aside for the time being; however, it will be a summer of a lot of re-reading and revisiting. One project involves Anne Carson, so I will be revisiting most of her work this summer. Plainwater (Vintage) might well be the title of hers that I’m most excited about re-reading this summer: not only has it been a while, but it was also the first Carson I read. I was blown away. I’m also looking forward to revisiting the dark world of Nox (New Directions), Carson’s eulogy to her brother. New Directions really did an astounding job with this book, which, physically, is a book like no other I have yet encountered: a truly passionate encomium; a harrowing journey through grief and the process of mourning.

One of the longer projects I’ve been working on for some time now deals with psychoanalysis, so I have been revisiting some texts and looking into new ones as I stumble upon them. Adam Phillip’s new biography of Freud, Becoming Freud (Yale University Press), is therefore timely; as a huge admirer of Phillips’s work to begin with, I think the analytic and literary critical communities have both him and Bruce Fink to thank for carrying Freud’s and Lacan‘s work forward, so I can’t imagine anyone who is more capable of writing such a book about the father of psychoanalysis.

Janet Malcolm’s Psychoanalysis: The Impossible Profession (Vintage) was an astonishing work I read recently, in preparation for revisiting her classic In the Freud Archives (New York Review of Books). I’d like to find time this summer for more of Malcolm’s work—likely The Journalist and the Murderer (Vintage) and her recent Forty-One False Starts: Essays on Artists and Writers (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)—as I truly think all writers can learn something from her style, as does this brief portfolio on NYU’s journalism website. Malcolm has a knack for letting her subjects speak for themselves, the sort of journalistic equivalent of a Henry James or an Ivy Compton-Burnett, and for employing a very tactful sense of juxtaposition to convey her opinion or stance without ever explicitly stating it. Writers can learn from Malcolm here about subtlety and authorial presence, but also, of course, from the many writers to whom her work alludes—figures like James and Proust, especially.

Speaking of James, after recently finishing and writing a piece for The Quarterly Conversation on Gerald Murnane’s latest work of fiction, A Million Windows (Giramondo), I feel it’s high time I revisited James’s The Portrait of a Lady. While “proustitute” is the moniker I chose for myself some years back on Tumblr and then Twitter, and while I am obviously a huge fan of Proust’s work (having successfully organized and moderated a year-long read of In Search of Lost Time in 2013), James is actually my favorite author if I were forced to choose one. With that said, though, I tend to prefer his later work, his more “dense” work—work from what is usually called his “major phase” after he began dictating to an amanuensis. Portrait, then, is an earlier work I tend to ignore when I re-read James (tending more toward his shorter work these days, “the beautiful and blessed nouvelle,” as he phrased it), but it’s obviously a seminal work of fiction as Michael Gorra’s Portrait of a Novel: Henry James and the Making of an American Masterpiece (Norton) demonstrates very astutely—and, I would argue, not only for American literature, but world literature more broadly. James’s influence, like Proust’s, can be felt everywhere. Murnane takes the title of A Million Windows from James’s New York Edition preface to Portrait, and James himself figures largely in Murnane’s meditation on writing, the role of the author, and what he calls “the ideal reader.” Like Malcolm’s immense importance to writers and thinkers, I think Murnane makes a good case in A Million Windows for why James is called “the Master”: one book I will be dipping into yet again this summer on top of Portrait will be The Art of the Novel (University of Chicago), a collection of all the prefaces James wrote for his authoritative New York Edition: essential reading for writers, for readers, for thinkers, and for those who want advice, straight from the Master’s mouth.

Two Lines Press is a wonderful press specializing in literature in translation, and their forthcoming short story collection by Naja Marie Aidt, Baboon, sounds amazing: the first by this author in an English translation, too. I have it here staring me in the face, and I hope to get to it soon and perhaps write something on it as time allows. In the past year, I have very much enjoyed devouring their editions of Marie NDiaye’s collection All My Friends ands Jonathan Littell’s Fata Morgana Books—and I look forward to their future ventures with eagerness.

I’m also very much looking forward to reading Shane Jones’s new book, Crystal Eaters (Two Dollar Radio), as well as a curiously decadent-sounding book by Brian O’Doherty, The Crossdresser’s Secret (Sternberg Press) that promises to fuse literary and cultural inquiry with gender, art, and aesthetics—a historical fictional endeavor about the “Chevalier d’Eon, who lived as both man and woman, French spy and European celebrity,” d’Eon being at least a partial influence on one of my favorite gender-bending novels from early-nineteenth century France, Théophile Gautier‘s Mademoiselle de Maupin.

First posted: Thursday, July 3rd, 2014.

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