Welcome to yet another column! (Section? Post format? Idk.) I have decided to dub it Reading Indigestion because of the voracious manner in which I consume books and also because I’m a sucker for terrible puns. As you might have guessed, this will be a recap/thoughtdump on the books I have read over a certain period of time; I’m also thinking about writing more theme-based lists/recs, but this will do for now. Due to a (now thankfully overcome) period of unemployment, I had lots of time to dedicate to reading in the past couple of months; these are miscellaneous thoughts on a bonkers Gothic-esque mid-century fantasy, a darkly humorous account of a year spent sleeping and being a dickhead, a disturbing example of Korean ecofiction, a volume on the ethics of urban planning, and a Nobel prize-winning collection of short stories. Dive in or dip in and out to your heart’s content!
The Gormenghast Trilogy by Mervyn Peake
This was definitely the most striking, immersive, bizarre, overall insane reading experience of the past few months. A quick synopsis: Titus Groan is born the heir of the Earl of Gormenghast, a gigantic castle full of bustling corridors and forgotten halls, imposing sculptures and creeping vines, but most importantly strange and vivid characters: the loquacious Doctor Prunesquallor, the aloof Countess and her menagerie of birds and cats, Titus’ untameable sister Fuchsia, and the cunning, Machiavellian youth, Steerpike. Gormenghast is paralyzed by ancient, complicated rituals, but of course something is bound to disrupt its equilibrium. Over the course of three novels, we follow Titus and a multitude of characters as Gormenghast undergoes a series of shocks that will change it forever.
I have to say something that you will read in every Gormenghast review ever, but it’s the absolute truth, so bear with me: Peake is a master of atmosphere. He has an incredible visual imagination, and the sheer oddity and mystery of his settings is just as striking as the events he describes, if not more so. He also has a gift for prose: it is varied, ornate, almost overflowing – in short, completely bonkers. Take the incipit of Titus Groan, the first book of the trilogy, which starts appropriately with a description of Gormenghast:
“Gormenghast, that is, the main massing of the original stone, taken by itself would have displayed a certain ponderous architectural quality were it possible to have ignored the circumfusion of those mean dwellings that swarmed like an epidemic around its outer walls. They sprawled over the sloping arch, each one half way over its neighbour until, held back by the castle ramparts, the innermost of these hovels laid hold on the great walls, clamping themselves thereto like limpets to a rock. These dwellings, by ancient law, were granted this chill intimacy with the stronghold that loomed above them. Over their irregular roofs would fall throughout the seasons, the shadows of time-eaten buttresses, of broken and lofty turrets, and, most enormous of all, the shadow of the Tower of Flints. This tower, patched unevenly with black ivy, arose like a mutilated finger from among the fists of knuckled masonry and pointed blasphemously at heaven. At night the owls made of it an echoing throat; by day it stood voiceless and cast its long shadow.”
I like to describe the first two Gormenghast novels as featuring a Gothic setting, a Baroque writing style, and modernist themes: the stifling nature of an outdated class system, the anxiety about an impending catastrophe, the slow but inevitable collapse of all reference points are classics of post-Second World War English literature, and inevitably invite comparison with another great fantasy author of the same period: Tolkien and his Middle Earth epopee. Peake, however, is darker than Tolkien, in a way less conservative and more fragmentary: many of the settings and plot strands he introduces don’t really go anywhere, and the undercurrent of anxiety and decadence that permeates the trilogy never really gets resolved. In the third novel, Titus leaves Gormenghast and faces the world beyond his great castle; without giving too much away, I can say that the writing correspondingly becomes less precise, more impressionistic, more surreal – the book feels like a fever dream. Some readers love it, some readers hate it, some explain these features away by positing Peake’s premature dementia as their cause; regardless, I think Peake has captured something about the relationship between history, place, modernity, and the individual which I had never seen expressed in such a vivid, complex manner.
My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Mosfegh
The protagonist of this book is an asshole, and I love it. I take a kind of weird pleasure in reading about women who are unquestionable and unapologetic pieces of shit, and I particularly appreciated the protagonist of this book because she’s an asshole in a way that’s usually reserved to men: she’s a dick to others not out of active malice but because of (still morally reproachable) indifference, she entertains no ideas of self-improvement, and she’s a massive slob. I find it cathartic to read about certain kinds of horribleness because it allows me to exercise my own horribleness without actually being a dick to anyone, and Mosfegh’s protagonist magnified a kind of defiant-bordering-on-desperate numbness that, at the time I read this book, had been nagging me for a couple of months.
A quick recap of the actual plot: after graduating from Columbia, undertaking a glamorous but mind-numbingly boring internship in an art gallery, and dealing with the death of both her parents, the unnamed protagonist of My Year decides to lock herself up in her apartment on New York’s Upper East Side, take lots of sleeping pills, and slumber through the crisis. Sleep is by now her only comfort, the only way she can deal with the complex feelings she has about her life and its lack of purpose. I came across this book as I was going the above-mentioned period of unemployment and had turned to my oldest coping mechanism – reading – to avoid going slowly insane (see again: uncertain future, lack of purpose, quarter-life crisis, etcetera). The way the protagonist talks about sleeping reflected to an extent the way I thought about reading:
“Sleep felt productive. Something was getting sorted out. I knew in my heart – this was, perhaps, the only thing my heart knew back then – that when I’d slept enough, I’d be okay. I’d be renewed, reborn. I would be a whole new person, every one of my cells regenerated enough times that the old cells were just distant, foggy memories. My past life would be but a dream, and I could start over without regrets, bolstered by the bliss and serenity that I would have accumulated in my year of rest and relaxation”.
Of course retreating from the world in this way is not a long-term solution, for me or for the main character of this book; we both soon had to face the music. But I firmly believe that the only way out of certain crises is through, and it felt good to indulge my unhealthy habits alongside Mosfegh’s protagonist for a bit; while it was not restful or relaxing in the traditional way, it was exactly the catharsis I needed to move on with the rest of my life.
The Vegetarian by Han Kang
Okay, here is an example of how marketing can affect your perception of a book. Many of the reviews quoted on the front and back cover describe it a “darkly sensual” or some variation thereof: “a novel of sexuality and madness that describes its great success”, writes Ian McEwan; “a story pulsating with desire, betrayal and destruction”, says The Australian; “a darkly beautiful modern classic about rebellion, eroticism and the female body”, announces the book blurb itself. The premise of the book is simple enough: a seemingly ordinary woman suddenly decides to stop eating animals. That sounds interesting, I thought before buying the book. I wonder how the author will link the issue of vegetarianism to sexuality, betrayal, and the unspecified chaos hinted at in the reviews?
The answer (spoiler alert): by having two men close to the woman in question start acting in (what I personally found) a truly disgusting sexual manner towards her. What I found disgusting, I want to clarify, is not that they are sexually attracted to her, but that they both go about it in a selfish, objectifying, often actively abusive way. If the author was trying to draw a parallel between the way in which society views animals, especially the ones we eat, and the way in which society views women – as commodities, not fully conscious and deserving of rights – then she certainly succeeded; I definitely want to read The Vegetarian again and pay closer attention to her narrative choices, use of different points of view, and intricate symbolism. The first time round, I was perhaps too distracted by the cognitive dissonance between what I expected from the book, based on the reviews, and what I actually read; I found the erotic elements more disturbing than alluring. But that is interesting in and of itself: what I find fascinating in art and literature is the diversity of responses it evokes, and I like discussing my impressions with others just as much as I enjoy experiencing the works themselves.
A final note on a completely different topic: I found the translation truly excellent, and although I’m not familiar with the original (because I don’t understand a single word of Korean), the English version perfectly conveys what I imagine is seemingly effortless, but thoughtful and poetic, Korean prose. Translations of books that are originally written in non-European languages can often feel clunky and unsatisfying, and I often get the sense that the translator had trouble conveying the richness of meaning of the original vocabulary; not so with The Vegetarian. Tl;dr: massive kudos to Deborah Smith!
Building and Dwelling by Richard Sennett
Some nonfiction for a change! In this volume, veteran urbanist Richard Sennett considers the ethics and pragmatics of urban planning, alternating between social and cultural analysis and practical case studies (many of which he was directly involved in). He starts by considering the projects of three 19th century pioneers in urban planning: Ildefons Cerdà’s reimagining of Barcelona, Baron Haussmann’s remodelling of Paris, and Frederick Law Olmsted’s creation of Central Park in New York. He then moves on to consider the modern city, expanding his analysis to India, China, Colombia, and beyond. Throughout Building and Dwelling, he considers different possible interactions between what he calls ville and cité, i.e t the built urban environment and the cultural, social and psychological environment created by the urban population – an expansion of the concepts of house and home, essentially. Drawing on sociological, philosophical and literary sources as well as on his own experience, he advocates for an open city, one that is not passively idyllic but porous, diverse, co-created by its inhabitants. He grapples with questions of diversity and technology, wondering what’s the best way for vastly different people to co-exist and trying not to let automation turn citizens into docile, unresponsive individuals.
A funny feature of this book is that Sennett invokes a specific canon of intellectuals which I have encountered in my philosophical and literary studies but didn’t expect to meet again in a book on urban planning – from French novelist Marcel Proust to 20thcentury critic Walter Benjamin to Italian Renaissance poet Francesco Petrarca (usually known as Petrarch in the Anglophone world). This says something about the widespread diffusion of a certain canon, I think (mostly made up of European white men), but it was also kind of reassuring to discover that my very theoretical and abstract university education wasn’t completely useless and the authors I studied still inform contemporary thinkers on very practical and urgent issues. And Sennett is no snooty pedant anyway: he wants to avoid patronizing the residents of his cities at all costs, and maintains that planners should use their expertise to inform citizens about different possibilities and co-produce projects with them. Sennett is also not a hopeless idealist: he understands the need for ambitious, systematic planning, but he also tries not to let his ideas about what a city should be like overshadow what a city can actually be like. This frustrated me slightly in the beginning: I wanted big, bold ideas, something that had never been seen before. But I gradually came to realize that my ideals had maybe something of the dictatorial and control-freakish; Sennett, on the other hand, works with what he’s got, trusts people’s best instincts and knowledge, and doesn’t demand that they all get along like the best of friends. Rather, he tries to build an environment where they can live side by side, engage with each other if they want to, and slowly plant the seeds of a better cité.
Vintage Munro by Alice Munro
Munro won the Nobel Prize in Literature for her short stories in 2013, and this volume is a good introduction to many of her best-known works. I heard Munro described as a fine observer of character, and I definitely agree: she portrays the thoughts and emotions of her protagonists with both inquisitiveness and respect, taking daily life as a starting point for reflections on love, work, family, custom, and community. As is to be expected, I appreciated the fact that her female characters, who are invariably the protagonists of the stories, have a rich, nuanced inner life; this shouldn’t have to be remarked upon in The Year of Our Lord Twenty-Fucking-Nineteen, and yet here we are (or rather, here I am)! Still searching for female characters in literature that, you know, feel like people. Another factor I appreciated but haven’t encountered in many male authors so far is an attitude towards ordinary life that is questioning but not superficially rebellious. Many of Munro’s characters live in small communities, have normal jobs and normal lives, and feel a certain dissatisfaction towards their circumstances; but their mental approach is more thoughtful than the anguished rejection of many classic modernist writers, and as someone who leans towards the anguished and the rebellious myself it was fascinating to discover a mind that works in a completely different way.
Another aspect that struck me about Munro’s work is its complete lack of humour. The characters rarely laugh, and the reader is never invited to take part; the writing contains no jokes, no funny circumstances, no puns. This is not a criticism: I find humour a great device when done well but it’s by no means compulsory. Once again, I found it intriguing to see a mind work so differently from my own: as someone who considers humour a defining personality trait, a coping mechanism, and a way to get people to like me, I found it illuminating to read about the inner workings of a very serious mind. The stories do not suffer because of their lack of humour: the seriousness with which Munro treats mundane lives invests them with a rare dignity and an importance, but simultaneously the stories do not feel pathetic or stifling. Munro takes the quotidian and treats it seriously: it sounds simple enough, but I found it quietly outstanding in a way I didn’t expect.