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Top Reads of 2015: K. Thomas Kahn

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Following fellow 3:AM editor Joanna Walsh’s lead from 2014—after her highly impressive #readwomen2014 social media campaign—I aimed to continue this by forming a group on Goodreads for reading only (or mostly) female authors in 2015.Because of a prolonged immersion in British novelist Elizabeth Taylor’s work, much of which has been reprinted by NYRB Classics but the majority of which remain available only in Virago editions, I found myself reading a lot of green-spined Viragos, getting lost in the modernist and British interwar traditions—as reflected by marginal, neglected, and some woefully out of print authors like Kay Boyle, Betty Miller, and Dorothy Richardson. (Luckily, some of this seems to be changing…)

So my top reads of 2015 mostly represent “classics,” both in the canonical, hackneyed sense and in the noncanonical, lamentable sense: texts and authors that should be regarded as classics and yet which still remain under the radar. Interspersed with these, of course, are a couple of more contemporary texts, all of which—on a far from arbitrary, though alphabetical, list I whittled down from 25 brilliant books I read in 2015 to a mere 10—are literary gems and singular stylists, wholly deserving of the “classic” company they keep below.

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Charlotte Brontë, Villette (Penguin)

The only re-read on this list, Villette is a book I read almost yearly, getting more out of it on each latest journey through. (I honestly couldn’t even tell you how many times I’ve read the novel by now; it’s probably something like twenty times.) Perhaps the most anti-Victorian of Victorian novels, as well as the one most leaning toward modernist techniques—starring what is likely the most bewildering, maddening, perplexing, and yet somehow empathic narrator in fiction, ever—Villette should be better known than Jane Eyre. Not only that, but it’s a novel that truly should be considered a necessary step toward literary modernism: little wonder George Eliot was so enamored of Villette, finding “something almost preternatural in its power”; no surprise that Virginia Woolf called it Brontë’s “finest novel.”

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Kay Boyle, Year Before Last (Virago)

After finding Boyle’s work in 2014, and being so entranced by her prose in Three Short Novels that I picked it as a top read last year, I wanted to delve into her massive oeuvre as much as I could in 2015. Refusing to be stopped by the fact that her books are all out of print (a fucking shame that needs to be redressed now, please, indie publishers!), I devoured all the Boyle I could. It seems that the literary world this year has even caught a bit of of a Boyle bug, with The Scofield theming their second issue around her work, and I hope this spotlight on her continues to shine, ensnaring more readers who have yet to experience her fiction for the first time.

Despite what I wrote in The Scofield on Boyle’s novel Avalanche, I think Year Before Last might well be her finest; if not, it’s certainly her most stylistically innovative, placing her in the company of giants like Gertrude Stein and Ezra Pound, both of whom she counted as friends during her expat years in Paris. Boyle’s work is always structurally innovative, but Year Before Last is a stylistic performance extraordinaire, spiraling ever further downward as her portrait of a parasitic husband and interdependent marriage (it strikes me now that I have several of these kinds of titles below: make of that what you will) reaches a denouement that will, in all seriousness, leave the reader gasping. If you don’t know Boyle’s work, do yourself a favor and scour used bookstores or your favorite online shops for secondhand copies of all her work, not just this novel—and read The Scofield’s second issue cover to cover as a Boyle primer, while you’re at it.

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Danielle Dutton, S P R A W L (Siglio)

A kind of Mrs. Dalloway in objects, a kind of performance piece melding stream-of-consciousness with commentary on photographer Laura Letinsky’s domestic still lifes, and at times one of the most philosophical accounts of contemporary suburban American existence and the ever-trenchant fetters of gender roles, Dutton’s S P R A W L is a book a reader might read in one sitting, but it will resonate for days to come—if not longer. Dutton is already a promoter of women’s writing via Dorothy, a publishing project; however, while some of the writers whom Dorothy has published or reprinted—e.g., Nell Zink, Amina Cain, Barbara Comyns, and 3:AM’s own Joanna Walsh—have been receiving deserved praise, to my mind, Dutton’s own work has slipped past readers’ attentions. S P R A W L is that rare kind of book that will change one’s perception of what fiction can do, of what narrative can accomplish, and just how many voices make up one lone voice: it’s a celebration of the incessant interior chorus that is the examined, literary, artistic life.

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Belén Gopegui, The Scale of Maps, trans. Mark Schafer (City Lights)

Another book that seems to have fallen under the radar, Gopegui’s debut novel is so impressive and unique that the translated literary world should be wringing their hands in impatient anticipation for her next work in English rather than not knowing her name. Any novel whose narrator begins by admitting that he’s lying is sure enough to get my attention, and The Scale of Maps—with its Borgesian/Nabokovian exploration of desire and place; loneliness and connection; and Sergio Prim’s attempt to “map the void” so that he and his lover can withstand it all—never disappoints. Gopegui’s prose moves seamlessly from philosophical diatribes to poetic passages that are infinitely quotable; Schafer’s translation is superb. A book for lovers, dreamers, readers, and those who are more than a little obsessed with maps.

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Elizabeth Harrower, The Catherine Wheel (Text Publishing)

After James Wood’s 2014 assessment of Harrower’s work in The New Yorker, I set myself the task of reading several of her novels, all published by Text Publishing. The Catherine Wheel is perhaps her most atypical in that it takes place in London—all the others take place in her native Australia—but it, too, focuses on themes of central across Harrower’s work… themes that are harrowing indeed but told in what Wood rightfully calls Harrower’s “exquisite stylishness.” Increasingly claustrophobic, by turns an outsider’s view of 1950s London’s inhabitants and culture as well as an internally focused portrait of interdependency, The Catherine Wheel is a great starting point for those new to Harrower’s work, those readers who are unafraid to face the darker aspects of desire we’re sometimes too ashamed to acknowledge.

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Betty Miller, On the Side of the Angels (Virago)

Another buried author, Betty Miller was an eye-opening discovery for me this year. On the Side of the Angels is one of the finest examinations of gender and war from early-twentieth century Britain, and it rightfully deserves to be placed alongside Rebecca West’s much better-known The Return of the Soldier, another consideration of these themes, albeit dealing with the previous World War. Miller examines two couples’ different reactions and responses to gendered expectations during wartime, resulting in a sly critique of masculinity and hero worship in the name of nationalism, with writing so effortlessly flowing that selecting even one quote out of context would do the rest of the novel a horrific injustice.

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Dorothy Richardson, Pilgrimage (Virago)

I suppose I’m cheating a bit here since Pilgrimage is really 13 short novels, not one; but Pilgrimage is a sequence of novels in the same way that Marcel Proust’s Recherche is—indeed, Richardson began writing the first volume of Pilgrimage before Swann’s Way was published in 1913, even though it appeared after. And Richardson was grouped among such formative modernist writers like Proust and Joyce in her lifetime, garnering the respect of Woolf, Katherine Mansfield, William Carlos Williams, and others.

For those readers whose knowledge of modernist fiction begins with Joyce or Woolf, do yourselves a favor and read one of the most original works of modernist fiction—and, sadly, one that is out of print… although Oxford University Press will be bringing all the volumes of Pilgrimage back into print beginning in 2018. A sequence about protagonist Miriam Henderson’s experience of life, running the gamut from everything and nothing, from life and love and loss and the trappings yet simultaneous freedom of female identity, Richardson’s Pilgrimage is one of the first examples in English of innovative shifts in point of view, the use of interior monologues, the emphasis on fragments above all else. Pilgrimage should be all of our journeys, really; I guarantee if you begin with Pointed Roofs, the first volume, you will continue on your way through the rest of Miriam’s pilgrimage through life… likely long before Oxford has had a chance to bring the other volumes back into print.

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Mercè Rodoreda, A Broken Mirror, trans. Josep Miquel Sobrer (Bison Books)

Because I lack the words to properly describe the experience of reading Rodoreda’s A Broken Mirror, I’ll leave it to Paul Kerschen to entice you, from his wonderful consideration of her work in The Quarterly Conversation:

“[A Broken Mirror is] constructed to look, at least in its beginning, like a nineteenth-century family chronicle. A marriage is made, an inheritance is secured, a house is founded, and then—the novel’s great surprise—nothing happens but life, and the slow transition into death. Along the way we pass all the components of melodrama: theft, adultery, concealed parentage, murder, the possibility of incest. The war too makes a background appearance. But the book is so determined not to assemble these elements into a consecutive plot that its effect is of a series of set pieces: serving girls bathing outdoors, the aged master straightening the spines in his library… Rodoreda has been master of her form for some time now, and the project of Mirall trencat [A Broken Mirror], like that of Lampedusa’s The Leopard, is the slow disassembly of the nineteenth century.”

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Magda Szabó, The Door, trans. Len Rix (NYRB)

“Dogs and cats; intellectuals and domestics; gods and godlessness; fantasy and reality; privilege and strife; the younger and the older generations; what lies exposed and what lies hidden behind locked doors—Szabó’s The Door covers all of these elements, and then some. The ease with which she positions her narrator Magda and her mysterious housekeeper Emerence in opposition to one another speaks not only to intimacy among women, but also reflects on how knowledge can be shared (or suppressed) across generational, political, and social boundaries.”

This quote of mine sums up my thoughts on The Door, but please read my full review of it in Words without Borders wherein I attempt to analyze Szabó’s complex portrait of two very different woman, in a book that is much about the process of writing and storytelling as it is about gender, class, and generation gaps.

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Elizabeth Taylor, A Wreath of Roses (Virago)

In Full Stop, I reviewed Taylor’s A View of the Harbour, recently reissued by NYRB Classics, attempting to situate it within the context of some of her other work. A Wreath of Roses, though, is without a doubt Taylor’s masterwork: a synthesis of art, longing, alienation, and the myriad ways we all try to forge connections with others across the many chasms that separate individuals. I would direct those new to Taylor’s work to my Full Stop piece for a more in-depth examination of her central themes than I can offer here; and, if you’re not only new to Taylor’s work, but her name is new to you: use 2016 to remedy that, please!

While A View of the Harbour might be a good starting place to see how Taylor takes other writers’ work—in this case, Woolf’s To the Lighthouse—as a germ for her own vision, a stepping stone as she treads off in another (sometimes more radical) direction entirely, A Wreath of Roses is her crowning achievement. A humane meditation on what it means to be human, on what it means to long, on what it means to want to leave pieces of oneself behind… in short, Wreath encompasses the whole of human experience in such a brief space that not only is Taylor’s vision on display, but so is her skill at the economy of language.

K. Thomas Kahn is 3:AM‘s editorial director.

First posted: Monday, December 7th, 2015.

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